I don't expect to actually review books here, but I thought I would write a little bit periodically about books that I've read and what I've taken from them. Cheryl Strayed's WILD: A JOURNEY FROM LOST TO FOUND is this week's selection.
I don't know why it took me so long to come around to this book, or the movie, which I saw first.
Surely the story of a woman hiking thousands of miles in the wilderness as a way of coming to terms with grief and loss and a messed-up life is something right up my alley, no?
It was ignorance, probably. I heard that the author had renamed herself "Strayed" after, you know, going astray, and I thought this was going to be one of those hippy-dippy heal thyself memoirs that I'm beginning to realize aren't actually all that prevalent. There are plenty of inspirational memoirs that are raw and real and unflinching, and this is one of them.
Maybe I just have a subconscious bias against Reese Witherspoon; I don't know.
In any case, I watched the movie last summer, and it was as good as everyone said it was. It was exactly my kind of story, and Witherspoon and Laura Dern were both fantastic.
So earlier this year, when I saw a copy of the source material in a bookstore, I picked it up and read it almost immediately.
Even knowing that everything works out in the end, this was a stressful read. I'm someone who likes to go into the woods overprepared, and while Strayed brings a hell of a lot of stuff in her backpack, it's clear that she's not ready for a journey of this magnitude. I would have had nervous breakdowns ten or fifteen times over before the end of the first segment.
In particular, it made me pretty damn anxious that she never had any money. Like, she'd be down to her last sixty cents and have a hundred miles to hike, and I'd be gnawing my fingernails right off as I turned the pages. I'm always comforted knowing that no matter how far off the beaten path I get, I have enough money for food and a bus ticket home if it all goes to shit.
But I guess I'm pretty spoiled.
While it was the outdoorsy stuff that really captured my imagination, Strayed's internal journey stuck with me as well.
I found particularly poignant the passage where her mother, dying of an aggressive cancer at age 45, cries that she'd always imagined she would have time to live for herself, having spent devoted her life to this point to her roles as a mother, a wife and a daughter.
And I certainly read with interest Strayed's accounts of her experiences with drug addiction and the breakdown of her marriage, and in particular the factors in her youth and adolescence that pushed her to that point.
I've been close to a few people with addiction issues, and been hurt by them, and I've also been lucky enough to know people who've tackled addiction and won. I'm always interested in their stories, and I'm always struck by their courage, their honesty and their lack of judgment, in a world that often writes addicts off as worthless and dishonest.
What struck me the most, though, was the poetry of Strayed's description of her healing in the wilderness. Lines like the below had me reaching for my trail guide and yearning for my own mountains to climb, for the clarity that comes with solitude and a long path ahead.
“It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”