Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Primarily, Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is not about her 1,100-mile trek from southern California to the Oregon-Washington border. Which is to say that Wild is not a story only for backpackers and wilderness-enthusiasts. Rather, Strayed, who authored the 2006 novel Torch and writes the “Dear Sugar” advice column at The Rumpus.net, focuses her memoir on the story that plays against the backdrop of the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT)—the story that manifests itself in flashbacks and reflections throughout her hike.
The story that begins four years before Strayed sets foot on the trail, with the unexpected death of her mother.
This death proves the catalyst of the events in Wild. It devastates Strayed. Spiraling into a state of depressed recklessness, she becomes wild, hurling herself at men, at drugs, at anything that might ease her pain. And only after her marriage has shattered and she finds herself driving to an abortion clinic to terminate an unplanned pregnancy, does she finally acknowledge that “I was not meant to be this way, to live this way, to fail so darkly.”
This acknowledgment proves the turning point for Strayed. It convinces her of her need to change. Ultimately, it pushes her to hike the PCT, a feat that she believes will help her to become “strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good.”
So begins her story of transformation.
And underpinning her transformation is the concept of identity, a central concern of Wild. For example, early in the memoir, while finalizing divorce documents, Strayed has the opportunity to choose a new last name—a new identity. Rejecting the name she and her ex-husband shared, she chooses one that reflects her current situation, one that communicates her wanderings and lost-ness. One that, despite its presence on the cover of the book, is no less absurd in its poeticism.
Throughout Wild, this concept of identity continues to crop up. It appears in the “fat roll of condoms” that Strayed packs for her trip, bespeaking the tension between her old identity and the new one that she hopes to build on the trail. It appears in her transition from being called the Hapless Hiker to being called the Queen of the PCT. It appears in a pivotal, late-night scene with a young man named Rick. And in all of these instances, Strayed handles her topic with laudable subtlety—as any good memoirist ought. After all, memoir walks a fine line between fiction and reality, and part of what makes it an engaging genre is its capacity to craft a meaningful narrative from life, without this narrative-life hybrid feeling forced.
Which is not to say that Wild never feels forced. Occasionally, in her treatment of identity, Strayed approaches heavy-handedness. A prime example is her abuse of the phrase “hunching in a remotely upright position.” Representing Strayed’s desire to reform—to become “upright”—this phrase suggests its symbolic significance through mere cumbersomeness. Consequently, it does not require repetition. Yet Strayed drops the phrase multiple times throughout the memoir, and by its third or fourth appearance, she no longer suggests to the reader her struggle with identity so much as she bludgeons him with it.
The same is true of her massive backpack, Monster. More than once she refers to Monster as her “burden to bear”—which is enough to establish a link between the backpack and the mental baggage of Strayed’s grief and reckless living. But Strayed unnecessarily cements the symbol. For example, she writes that this burden was of her own “ludicrous making, and yet I had no idea how I was going to bear it.” Such passages explain the symbol, instead of allowing the symbol to speak for itself.
Nonetheless, these hiccups are minor—faint discolorations against the backdrop of Wild’s greatest success: its searing honesty. Strayed does not pull punches. With admirable courage and frankness, she refuses to shy from the unpleasant details of her pre-PCT life and of her life on the trail, but instead lays bare her story and herself. And although her language is occasionally coarse, her readers—from backpackers to wilderness-enthusiasts to those merely looking for a good story—will find her difficult to begrudge. For even as Strayed turns her readers’ attention outward to the life rendered on the pages of her memoir, she directs their gazes inward, to reflect with courage and honesty upon the question of identity in their own lives.
By: BEN DEVRIES