Friday, October 3, 2014

WILD: These boots are made for walking. My take on Cheryl Strayed's memoir


I've put off reading Wild, Cheryl Straid's 2012 true story about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail  because while I love memoir (and try my hand at the genre occasionally myself) I'm not exactly an outdoor woman. We went on a few camping trips when my son was a cub scout - I was the den mother for a couple of years, kinda hard to avoid those overnighters as the so-called leader of the pack - and the memory of freezing in the tent at night, tortured by the hard rocky ground beneath my back, unable to sleep while visions of grizzly bears, or worse, axe murderers danced in my head,have had me running to any other port in a travel storm ever since. In truth, even crappy rooms at Motel 6 are a step above camping in my opinion. So I wasn't exactly looking forward to reading about backpacks and trail markers and learning how to use a portable water pump. The very idea of having to use a portable water pump is a foreign concept to me and I was just as happy to have it remain so. Ignorance can be bliss. 

But, the movie starring Reese Witherspoon and based on Strayed's book has been making the festival circuit this fall. With its' theatrical release set for December 5th, I knew I had to tackle it eventually. Funny, isn't it, how sometimes the stuff you dread the most, often resonates the most too? I knew Strayed's relationship with her mother figured in the book - the book jacket sums it up succinctly  ...
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
But I didn't quite understand how central, not just her mother's death, but of course, her mother's life, would figure into the narrative. The book begins with that painful death, her mother's body torn apart by cancer. While those pages left me blurry-eyed with tears, it's the memories of her mother, and all the little anecdotes that really got me. The stories of her mother's love of James Michener, going to college together (and learning that Michener, to the literary cognoscenti snobs was not to be loved), of her mother's beloved horse, of making a home out of a series of low rent apartments were solid gold. Reading Strayed's frustration with how her mother failed her children with all she didn't know and all sje didn't even know enough to consider, but how she succeeded too, by sheer force of love, were very moving. As a mother and a daughter I found myself relating in so many ways, and questioning myself. Did I love my own mother well enough while she was living; did I respect the lessons she taught me, perhaps unknowingly? As a mother had I failed my own child? Did I impart the right lessons, giving him the knowledge he'd need to succeed in the world or was I just another myopic mom content to see him continuing life as I knew it, as a reflection of my husband and me, blind to bigger, grander possibilities? How much of my own mother had I become? 

Her honesty was matter of fact and pretty mind-blowing; she writes about her divorce, doing heroin and fucking a whole lot of men without fanfare, neither making excuses for or trying to glamorize her behavior. It was what it was, and with the exception of a guy named Jonathan that she meets in Ashland, Oregon, spares us the details. The details she does share of her time in Ashland are sexy and well crafted; it's one of the highlights of the trip both for the pleasure she takes in it and for what it means to her as she moves forward, shedding old baggage.



I was most surprised that I found the day to day tedium of hiking the trail absolutely riveting.Yes tedium. Strayed, in her clear and direct voice, doesn't romanticize any of it, she just tells it like it is. And much of it is just getting through the day, with the pack so heavy it's nicknamed Monster, on her back and like the neighborhood mailman, in rain, sleet or snow, she keeps on truckin'. For over a thousand miles she plants one foot in front of the other, in her case, one pain filled foot in front of the other! 
"I'd adjusted to the endless miles-long panoramas; become familiar with the perception that I was walking on the land in the very place where it met the sky. The crest.
But mostly I didn't look up. Step by step, my eyes were on the sandy and pebbly trail, my feet sometimes slipping beneath me as I climbed up and switched back. My pack squeaked annoyingly with each step, the sound still emanating from that spot only a few inches from my ear.
As I hiked, I tried to force myself not to think about the things that hurt –– my shoulders and upper back, my feet and hips –– but I succeeded for only short bursts of time."
SPOILER ALERT
The details of that trek, with its' daily challenges,- have you ever rinsed the blood out a natural menstruation sponge in the woods? - the amount of time she spends worrying - and writing - about her poor feet were oddly fascinating; especially as while she constantly encountered difficulties, disappointments and setbacks, she never had to overcome the kind of huge, horrible ordeal we often equate with the adventure genre. She never fell down the mountain, she was never attacked by a mountain lion, she never almost froze to death stuck on a mountaintop, she was never raped by a serial baddie roaming the trail. But she just as easily could have. Maybe that's part of what made the book so powerful to me. The act of tackling the PCT, a woman alone, was such an act of sheer bravery in and of itself, that everyday was simply an affirmation of her guts, her grit and her determination to move beyond fear.

Late in the book, she meets up with Doug*, one of the hikers she met earlier on the trail; both were thrilled to reunite and they take the time to enjoy a meal and a bottle of wine together. 
After awhile, we each turned abruptly toward the darkness, hearing the yip of the coyotes more near than far.
"That sound always makes my hair stand on end," Doug said. He took a sip from the bottle and handed it to me. "This wine's really good."
"It is," I agreed, and took a swig. "I heard coyotes a lot this summer," I said.
"And you weren't afraid, right? Isn't that what you told yourself?"
"It is what I told myself," I said. "Except every once in awhile," I added. "When I was." 
All that stood between Cheryl Strayed and potential bear attacks was this pop-up tent

I suppose if she had been a more average woman, a more ordinary person, the type of person to dwell on the scary as all get out aspects of it, unable to work past her fears about being isolated on such a terrifying journey, she would never have made the trek. But she did make it, and therefore along the way was able to find, as she says, both the woman her mother raised her to become and the girl she used to be, both of whom she'd lost sight of for after her mother's death and her divorce.

* Cheryl Strayed encountered some wonderful people on her journey, they often hiked in and out of each other's paths, sometimes sharing a meal, sometimes just sticking around long enough to make observations about the best way to confront an upcoming difficulty like unexpected snow. My one and only quibble with the book is that Strayed acknowledged that some of the names she used were fake, to help preserve the anonymity of the real person. All well and good but there was an entire section where I had to constantly flip back and forth trying to differentiate between a set of men all with single syllable American sounding names: Doug, Tom, Glenn, Greg, Ed, Mike etc.  I think as long as you're making up names, it's better to approach the names just as you would names in a work of fiction, what you call someone should help ID the character, not make them sound like Person A, Person B and Person C. 

That being said on my non existent rating scale I'd give WILD From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail 6 destroyed toe nails out of 7.


2 comments:

  1. Ha! Funny review. I liked Wild, but had a hard time relating to the main character. I'm excited to see the movie and predict the script will have been toned down to smooth away some of those rough edges. My own hiking novel, Trail Mix, is out now on Amazon and hopefully will appear on Barnes and Noble for Nook any minute now! I coincided with the hype over the Wild movie.

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    Replies
    1. Oooh! Cool Paulita, I look forward to reading it!

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