If you find yourself with time on your hands this weekend and a memory of trips past, consider reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It is about her hundred day journey on the Pacific Crest Trail a number of years ago. What makes this book remarkable is its unflinching look at not only backpacking but life and love.
Four years after the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed decides on a whim to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She spends months gathering needed supplies, and non-zooms off on the trail without any backpacking experience at all. Having lived an outdoorsy life as a girl and having walked a lot around town, Cheryl hopes that backpacking will be somewhat similar. Before taking the first step out her motel room door, she realizes this is going to be tough. She cannot lift her backpack after packing everything the local outdoor store has recommended, so she sits on the floor to buckle it on and has to rock back and forth until she finally has the pack off the ground. That day she calls it “The Volkswagon Beetle”. This book just continues to get better and better after that nearly perfect description of her first day out, and it’s almost impossible to put down. Start it on a Friday night, so you won’t have to stop for work the next morning.
She packs 3 books plus the one about the trail! Four books! Can you imagine carrying all that extra weight? OMG!
Miraculously, she learns to use her compass along the trail because she needs to and she’s packed a book called, “Staying Found, The Complete Map and Compass Handbook” by June Fleming. The day she’s lost (or was it one of the days?) she calls out to some skiers across a canyon who eventually call back, “Are you lost?” and she calls back “No!”. Wow, this is one determined lady. Every time, she finds either the trail or some roads to walk down until she gets help or starts again.
She meets people who catch up to her because they read her notes at each trail head and forms a group of friends she sees from time to time, but not the whole time because she prefers to be alone. Most of the time she is alone, but if you go to her website, you can see a few photos from the actual trip and one of the other people. She even meets people after the trip. One of them is a woman from Switzerland her rubs her feet. This book is amazing.
Interwoven through the hiking story are memories of her family and the complete shock she feels when she finds out her mother is dying. Her mother was relatively young when she found out she had cancer and the book relives that moment and the moments that followed it. Cheryl Strayed holds nothing back, even comparing the dreams she had after her mom died with the ones she had after her mom’s horse had to be put down.
The story is full of rich descriptions of food interspersed with descriptions of the sheer physical pain of carrying that much weight and having poor fitting boots that cause numerous blisters. No one told her what kind of gas to put in the stove, so she has to make it through the whole first section of the trip on snacks because she can’t heat up any of her freeze dried meals until someone fixes the stove. This person also gives her white gas to use instead of the gasoline she started with. Near the end of the trip, someone invites her to a home-cooked meal at their cabin and she comes back to share some of the cake with her friends that weren’t invited. She looks at their meals and thinks to herself that the freeze dried dinners they’re eating look “loathsome” and she feels bad for them.
She ends up at the drive-in at Cascade Locks where most gorge hikers have been many times for an ice cream. This book is a must-read for any backpacker or anyone who’s lost a parent or for anyone who loves language and the skillful use of it.