I really enjoyed the film adaptation of this best-selling memoir with Reese Witherspoon in the lead role from five years back. Now I finally found the time for the original book, the entertaining, emotional and at times harrowing account of a young woman who hiked 1,100 miles alone along the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA.
People go on an odyssey in the wilderness for all sorts of reasons, but to twenty-six-year-old Strayed, her long hike was about saving herself and changing her life. Raised in Minnesota, she lost her mother to fast-moving cancer when she was twenty-two, an event that shattered her and set her on a self-destructive downward spiral. Strayed’s stepfather and siblings drifted apart, and her marriage crumbled after she embarked on a string of infidelities and dabbled in heroin. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mojave in California to Oregon’s northern border, writes Strayed, was my way back to the person I used to be.
This book is definitely not a How To Hike the PCT guide. Even by the standards of the time, with the internet still in its infancy, Strayed admits that she was woefully underprepared for the challenge ahead and didn’t pay quite as much attention to her PCT guidebook as she should have. Her boots turned out to be a size too small, she initially purchased a wrong kind of fuel for her stove, and her backpack (nicknamed Monster) was so heavy she could barely hoist it on her back. The sheer physical hardship of the hike is a constant refrain throughout and Strayed doesn’t hold back on the details: the sweltering heat one day and the plummeting temperatures the next, blisters, lost and blackened toenails, the hardening of her body, a near-religious bliss of a shower after weeks of no washing. Money is also a struggle; though Strayed never starved, stretching the $20 she picked up at the post offices scattered across the PCT was a series of agonised decisions.
Wild is also not really a travelogue; though there are some lovely and evocative descriptions of the natural surroundings, the main focus remains on Strayed’s inner emotional journey. The book frequently returns to her troubled past, in particular her mother and the complicated mess of emotions and unresolved issues left in the wake of her death. It’s almost as much of a mother/daughter story, told with real unadorned candour.
Though Strayed deliberately sought out solitude, her journey was peppered with many encounters with the fellow PCT hikers, and she writes with warmth about the easy intimacy and camaraderie that often marks these fleeting but memorable interactions during travel. She’s also not indifferent to the good-lookin’ ones (and had packed condoms). Being a rare lone female hiker came with extra dangers as well as perks. Strayed describes a particularly creepy incident in the woods that sounds familiar to any woman who ever found herself alone with a man who sets her instincts screaming red alert. But she was also offered help that probably wouldn’t have been extended to a male hiker.
Strayed’s writing voice is so clear, resonant and honest that her memoir never comes off as cloying, even when at its most blatantly inspirational. By the end of the book, I really felt like I went on a journey with her, and came away with an understanding why a punishing hike in the wilderness was exactly what she needed.