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English department

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Grief: a singular, universal human experience which compels some people to change their exteriors in response to the internal turmoil. Some people buy things, other people drastically change their appearance, others try new, bad relationships, and still, others try a different identity. In the wake of her mother’s untimely death, Cheryl Strayed embarks on a one-thousand mile solitary hike across the Pacific Crest Trail’s grueling terrain. As her physical body is chafed raw, broken down and then built back up, internally, she undergoes a similar process of healing. As C.S. Lewis remembered his wife’s life in A Grief Observed, and Nicholas Wolterstorf grieved his son’s death in Lament for a Son, Cheryl Strayed both remembers and grieves in wrenching depth the loss of her beloved mother, and the journey that her grief prompted. Wild is at once a treatise on the intricacies and delights of advanced hiking across the alternate terrains of California, Oregon, and Washington, sure to delight avid backpackers, and a memoir of a writer’s prodding with candor the depths of her own loss and grief, sure to resonate with any human being who has loved and lost.

Seven weeks after her mother was diagnosed with cancer, her mother died at only forty-five. Stunted with grief, Strayed finds her life and relationships unraveling in the four years after her mother’s death. Strayed mourns her loneliness in the wake of this death, yet craves aloneness, solace from her shattered life. She recounts her hike in Wild, of California’s desert landscape changing into Oregon’s lush mountains, and the physical strain of the hike both distracting her from her emotional turmoil and allowing her rage at her mother’s death to come to the surface: “She had failed. She had failed. She had so profoundly failed me…And then I wailed. No tears came, just a series of loud brays that coursed through my body so hard I couldn’t stand up. I had to bend over, keening, while bracing my hands on my knees, my pack so heavy on top of me, my ski pole clanging out behind me in the dirt, the whole stupid life I’d had coming out my throat” (267).

The depth of her grief-stricken state burns a hole in the reader’s heart, too. Though her grief devastates, Strayed manages comic portrayals of herself, touching with humor such a grave circumstance and juxtaposing her grief and her humor: “In reflecting I thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips” (85).

Though Strayed’s recounting of her dabbling in drugs, having sex with many men she barely knew, a list-like rendering of an abortion as a means of self-improvement, and her otherwise self-destructive behavior triggers dislike, even contempt for her from the reader, yet, Strayed’s candor in conveying her state of grief compels compassion: “It was wrong. It was so relentlessly awful that my mother had been taken from me. I couldn’t even hate her properly. I didn’t get to grow up and hate her…and then get older and understand that she had done the best she could…Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance” (267).

Bereavement of her mother’s “all-encompassing love” is the thread running through the entirety of this memoir, and it has also informed Strayed’s other published work, Torch, a novel centered on a young woman’s crumbling relationships with her father and brother following the death of her mother.

In Wild, Strayed’s first-person storytelling, and lush and vivid imagery grant the reader the intimacy of being told a captivating and pivotal story. Strayed takes the reader along, as though she too, were walking along obsidian-strewn volcanic paths, huddling in the nylon tent on frigid nights, taking in meadowlands lined with “hardy wildflowers,” and feeling the weight of Monster’s straps biting into her shoulder blades. The reader comes to root for Strayed, willing her to overcome the harrowing yet healing PCT. Strayed writes with a sure and compelling voice. And with apprehension, delight, concern, and vexation, the reader will conclude this journey with Strayed, pondering the strength of the human body and spirit to endure and to heal.