“I looked north, in its direction – the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I know. There was always only one.
To keep walking.”
It’s not the easiest thing, writing a review of a memoir. Is it a discussion about a book? Or is it of the writer’s life? Both perhaps (and can one write a memoir when there are still decades more to go?)
At any rate, Cheryl Strayed’s life hasn’t been all peaches and cream.
There’s been drugs, adultery, a marriage destroyed, a family falling apart.
So she takes to the Pacific Crest Trail, which is 2,663 mi (4,286 km) long (from California to British Columbia) and ranges in elevation from just above sea level at the Oregon-Washington border to 13,153 feet (4,009 m). She doesn’t complete the entire trail, still it is an amazing feat for anyone, perhaps even more so for her, going it alone, barely prepared, with little prior hiking experience.
I’m not much of an outdoors person, at least not anymore.
In my junior college days (it’s the Singapore version of the last two years of high school so I was aged 17-18), the outdoors was my life. I was a member of my school’s Outdoor Activities Club or OAC and we lived for the outdoors. Trekking, canoeing, biking (overnight even), camping, knots, campfires etc. We did them all. The little island of Pulau Ubin (one of the last vestiges of kampung or village life in Singapore – at least it was that way then, I’m sure it has been developed more now) was our weekend home more or less, as we covered most of it on foot, familiarising ourselves with every trail and rest stop.
But it was always with a group, always with an end in sight, and since Singapore is so small, never all that far from a paved road – and possibly a working toilet and public telephone (those were the days before mobile phones – at least mobile phones that weren’t the size and weight of a brick). Even when I was trekking in Nepal, we were surrounded by porters and the next village was only a walk (albeit a long one) away, sometimes complete with a warm ‘shower’ (the villagers boil you water and you mix that with cold water in a bucket and pour it over yourself) and those amazing heated dining tables (a fire is lit just under the table, scary yes but warm and comforting too), not to mention cooked meals and the amazing pineapple juice!
So all this is to emphasize how I was constantly amazed by Strayed’s solo status. Even after she meets and makes friends with other PCT hikers and set off together, she breaks off to walk alone. That she would dare to walk alone in the wilderness, camp alone amid the howls of coyotes, hitchhike…! It’s not anything I would ever dare to do.
And she definitely made some, well, interesting decisions. Like how she set off with little prior research about the trail, not even consulting those who have hiked it before or even really reading the guidebook properly, and carrying a ridiculously huge and heavy bag she dubs the Monster which holds, among other things, a fat roll of condoms.
This book isn’t just about the hike of course, but often about the reason for that hike.
“I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world. My father left my life when I was six. My mother died when I was twenty-two. In the wake of her death, my stepfather morphed from the person I considered my dad into a man I only occasionally recognized. My two siblings scattered in their grief, in spite of my efforts to hold us together, until I gave up and scattered as well.”
Her story is a sad one and I have to admit here that I shed some tears, and since I was reading this on my iPad (it was an Overdrive e-book), I quickly wiped it off with my sleeve.
But it was also worthy of a good chuckle now and then, like her desperate need for a Snapple:
“I spent hours in a half-ecstatic, half-tortured reverie, fantasizing about cake and cheeseburgers, chocolate and bananas, apples and mixed-green salads, and, more than anything, about Snapple lemonade. This did not make sense. I’d had only a few Snapple lemonades in my pre-PCT life and liked them well enough, but they hadn’t stood out in any particular way. It had not been my drink. But now it haunted me. Pink or yellow, it didn’t matter. NOt a day passed that I didn’t imagine in vivid detail what it would be like to hold one in my hand and bring it to my mouth. Some days I forbade myself to think about it, lest I go entirely insane.”
I often had to remind myself how young she was when all this happened (20s) as many of her decisions are quite frustrating to read about. But in the end, I thought Wild was a pretty good read. If just for the inspiration of one day visiting the gorgeous Crater Lake in Oregon.