Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
There are books that seek to instruct you, books that want your respect, and books that need you to love them. To fully enjoy those in the latter category, you have to grant them the same latitude you would the people you love—you must forgive them their foibles, their misfires, and their whining, even when you’d rather not. Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir, is a book that needs to be loved. If Wild were a person, it would be scouring online personals and begging friends to set it up on a date.
I wanted to love Wild; I really did. On paper it was exactly what I was hankering after: a soulful journey into the self, light on sentiment, heavy on brute strength. But the sad truth is, good as it sounded, it lacked spark.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Strayed. She’s a good egg, one who managed to survive a difficult early life without getting utterly scrambled, and she deserves our sympathy. After losing her mother to a virulent and fast acting cancer in her early 20s, Strayed then watched her nomadic family disintegrate. All this heartbreak rendered her a stranger to herself and an alien in her own life; her marriage soon unraveled and everything else went along with it. Wild is Strayed’s account of how she recovered herself after all this loss. In 1995, she embarked on an 1,100-mile solo hike through the wilds of California and Oregon along the Pacific Crest Trail—an astounding, and some might argue, astoundingly foolhardy idea, given that Strayed had no experience and carried too much equipment but not enough money. If Eat, Pray, Love can be summed up as one woman’s journey to find herself after divorce, Wild is one woman’s search to find herself after divorce death, but with a vastly less appealing itinerary, crappy food, and tortuous footwear. There’s ample evidence in Wild that Strayed is exactly what she seems to be in “Dear Sugar,” her cult column on the Rumpus—a smart, ballsy woman with a hardscrabble past and a folksy sensibility. But being a likeable, or even admirable person, doesn’t necessary imbue one with the insight and artistic stamina required to fuel an entire memoir.
My trouble with Wild is that it should not have been a book. If hiking 1,100 miles alone sounds a little boring, imagine reading about it for 315 pages. It takes a special kind of writer to generate quality material out of what basically amounts to a very long, very hard walk. There’s some wonderful, complex stuff here. Strayed writes with a raw and deeply affecting immediacy about her early childhood and the death of her mother, for instance, but this material is weighted at the front and the back of the book and traversing the trough between them can be a pretty dull business.
Wild is, quite literally, a book about a girl in the woods by herself for a long time, and this is its downfall. As sympathetic as Strayed is, she doesn’t possess the bent for philosophy necessary to keep us locked in during all this introspection. Her insights are occasionally inspiring, but never revelatory. More troubling to me was that the Strayed at the beginning of this book, a lost girl with no money and exceedingly poor planning skills, doesn’t appear all that changed at the end. In fairness, personal transformation is a hard thing to transfer to the page. So much of it involves achieving a quiet, near wordless clarity. This is a great space to inhabit, but it’s a hard one to depict. How does one write about quiet? The answer in Strayed’s case is to fill the void with long-winded treatises on the state of her feet, the geography of her hunger, and her daily rituals.
There are thrilling and baldly terrifying moments in Wild: near dehydration on the trail, hours spent lost in the wilderness, repeated flirtations with total destitution. These scenes are nail-bitingly tense, but they’re brief and often the consequence of Strayed’s own poor decision making. At 22, I would have celebrated this girl’s audacity. As a woman in my 30s, I often wanted to sit her down and give her a nice long lecture on common sense. Can we really blame an emotionally addled 20-something for making dumb choices and delivering trite insights? Not if we want to look in the mirror with a straight face. But that doesn’t mean we’ll enjoy reading about them. Wild would have made a fabulous New Yorker article, but as a book it lacks real meat.