I just finished Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail for my winter grad class and I LOVED it. Plus it just came out as a movie featuring Reese Witherspoon, so I will definitely have to see it!
The story begins on a somber note with the death of Strayed’s mother. A woman she initially writes about with almost saintly narration, but reveals her few weaknesses and moments of humanity as well. Among my favorite: “She was optimistic and serene, except a few times when she lost her temper and spanked us with a wooden spoon. Or the one time when she screamed F#CK and broke down crying because we wouldn’t clean our room” (14).
As her mother goes through the medical steps that often come before death, Strayed realizes at 21 that she was going to be alone. “I almost choked to death on what I knew before I knew. I was going to live the rest of my life without my mother” (11). The sorrow that she is thrown into after that death brought years of dangerous, self-loathing living that her estranged husband tries to save her from. On a whim she picks up a book about the Pacific Crest Trail, and ultimately decides that her salvation is in those mountains.
Besides a few trips to REI to buy stuff, she begins her journey virtually unprepared, with a backpack she can barely lift. “I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering” (84). While her body was hard at work, her mind finally had the luxury of resting. Perhaps for the first time since her mother’s death. A couple days before she made that statement, she made the realization: “Every part of my body hurt. Except my heart” (70).
Throughout the memoir there are touches of an existential theme. When her boot goes cascading down the rocky cliff, she has the feeling that someone was playing a joke on her. “But no one laughed. No one would. The universe, I’d learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back” (209). Many of the animals she met on the trail were happy enough to part ways with her, especially the deer and the fox, who both seemed to ignore her very existence, seeing her as blended into the landscape. And as much as she had enjoyed becoming one with the nature around her, I think being ignored made her long to be seen. Then, when she loses her Vietnam War bracelet and tries to think of a positive symbol for its disappearance, she comes up dry: “The universe had simply taken it into its hungry, ruthless maw” (238).
But I think the strongest theme of all in this story is the very opposite of existentialism – a mother’s love. “‘I’ve given you everything,’ she insisted again and again in her last days… She did. She’d come at us with maximum maternal velocity. She hadn’t held back a thing, not a single lick of her love. ‘I’ll always be with you, no matter what,’ she said” (268). As Strayed nears the end of her journey, she kneels at a river after crossing it. “Where is my mother? I wondered, I’d carried her so long, staggering beneath her weight. On the other side of the river, I let myself think. And something inside of me released” (306). This reminded me of the River Styx of Greek mythology, which separates the world of the living from the afterlife. By going on her journey, Strayed confronts her own wide range of emotions about her mother, and finally releases her to be at peace.
Ultimately it’s her mother’s love blended with her love/hate relationship with the universe and nature in general, that heals her. She finishes her quest with the feeling of wholeness for perhaps the first time in her life. She comes to terms with the unknowable about this world and her place in it all. “It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be” (311).
Here’s the movie preview!
Have you ever been hiking? Are you going to see the movie?