Book Review: – Wild: a journey from lost to found

Wild: a journey from lost to found by Cheryl Strayed

Collected thoughts from the Book Club 01/05/2015

This is a deeply personal and honest account of Cheryl Strayed’s 1,100 hike alone up the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to northernmost Oregon. A novice hiker when she set out, the journey took her 3 months during which she experienced searing heat, snows, bears, rattlesnakes and such sore feet as well as stunningly beautiful scenery and being truly alone.

Her account of the walk is interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood, the death of her mother and the subsequent break up of her marriage and ‘Planet Heroin’. Indeed she set out on the walk “in order to save myself” and thought that “Hiking the PCT was my way back to the person I used to be.”

We had all enjoyed ‘Wild’. The initial collective feeling was ‘How could she have walked out on such a good man?’ ‘Why did she throw so much away?’, but we recognised that Strayed had already experienced an unconventional difficult upbringing. Her mother Bobbi’s deep love for Cheryl and her two siblings held them together as a family, but she still craved acceptance and recognition. Bobbi’s death leaves her reeling, “unmoored by sorrow” at the age of just 22.

We all agreed that Strayed showed remarkable determination and endurance – faced with blisters and losing toenails, walking with a pack (the Monster) that weighed more than she did- none of us would have lasted a day, let alone 3 months. Over that time she heals physically and mentally, but there isn’t one big cathartic moment – it is a gradual process. She had expected to find time to reflect, but in reality the process of walking and surviving took over. As one of the group said – long distance walking actually doesn’t allow room for thought – you become focused on the next step, what hurts, and sometimes irritating earworms! You live in the moment and ‘empty the spirit’. It also is an experience in which you are totally reliant on yourself and your own resources.

Another thought was that the account illustrates Maslow’s hierarchy of need. In the early stages all Strayed can concentrate on is meeting her basic biological needs of food, water and comfort, and although these remain important as she gets stronger along the trail she has the energy to meet needs further up the pyramid such as friendship: the camaraderie of the other hikers on the PCT comes over as does the kindness of so many of the strangers she meets – negative encounters with others are few and far between. You feel at the end that she is growing in self-esteem.

Strayed tells her tale with an elegant turn of phrase and self-deprecating humour – as one reviewer said she “comes off as a total screw-up and a wise person at the same time.”

The sentence that summed up the heart of the book for me is about Crater Lake which lies in a volcanic caldera:

“There was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl                 turned into after the healing began.”


Other good reads:

Jonathan Raban (1999) Passage to Juneau: a sea and it’s meanings.

Raban is a master of travel writing, but this is one of my personal favourites – an account of his trip by yacht from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska which gives a detailed account of the sea in all its moods presented alongside with the voyage of Captain George Vancouver in 1792-94 and his encounters with the seagoing natives living along the coast.

Robert Pirsig, (1974) Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

A book that transformed a generation: an unforgettable narration of a summer motorcycle trip across America’s Northwest, undertaken by a father and his young son. A story of love and fear — of growth, discovery, and acceptance — that becomes a profound personal and philosophical odyssey into life’s fundamental questions.