I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should pick Wild up. I hated Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer with a fiery passion and people kept saying this was the “girl version.” I guess you could say that it was the “girl version” comment that both attracted and repulsed me at the same time. On the one hand, I hate Into the Wild for a dozen reasons that I didn’t want to see replicated in Wild, or any book ever again. But on the other, calling anything the “girl version” of anything else makes me mad; things that women do aren’t “girl versions” of what men do, they’re their own damn thing. So I picked Wild up to spite Into the Wild. No one said I was mature.
If you don’t know anything about the book, or the film, Wild is the story of how Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail — on the surface anyway. If you read this because you’re looking for a book about the PCT, you should probably not read it. This is a memoir about loss and making big, big mistakes. There are lots of flashbacks to Cheryl’s pre-trail past. So if you’re looking for a trail focused book, or a book that’s really all about hiking or backpacking, this isn’t it.
For me, the story was more about how Cheryl Strayed put herself back together after a series of events with which I felt intimately familiar. That is not to say that my life has been like Strayed’s, because decidedly, it has not. But there were enough significant intersections that I was very moved by Wild.
One of the primary reasons that Strayed decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail was that after her mother’s death her life fell apart– she fell apart. Her mother had been her center and without her she crumbled (this I identify with a little too much, losing my mother is my biggest fear. Also, HI MAMA!!). Her marriage fell apart, she experimented with heroin for a period of time, and she made some really bad choices about men. These are the places where I could see the overlap between her life and mine. My drug of choice wasn’t heroin, and it was my dad that died, but the bad choices about men and many of the themes surrounding all three were similar for me.
I love the idea of hiking the PCT, though frankly, I don’t have any desire to do it. That is because I am 33 and less exciting than I used to be. But if I’d picked this book up the year my dad died instead of Eat, Pray, Love (which I realize I could not have done, given that it had not been published yet), I would have left immediately. I wanted to leave immediately after reading Eat, Pray, Love, but I didn’t have the resources to do so. I think I would have hiked the PCT though, I really do.
Though I hope I would have prepared a bit more than Strayed did when she left home. The main tension of the book is that Cheryl was woefully unprepared to start a thousand mile hike through the mountains. In scenario after scenario she finds herself without the crucial knowledge or physical prowess to safely keep going, but she keeps going anyway. This is probably what reminds people of Into the Wild, but thank God, we know by virtue of the fact that Strayed herself is telling the story instead of Jon Krakauer that she made it. The adventure of it all was pretty amazing, but I know this aspect irritated a lot of people and I don’t fault them for it. Respect nature. Please.
So, if you’re not already predisposed to want to read Wild, why should you pick it up? Well, first of all, I think that kind of like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and its ilk, it’s a travel memoir with a heart of suffering and subsequent healing. If you have been in a rough spot lately, I think reading this could help you. If you have been suffering, you need to read books about wholehearted people who also have suffered and did the work to heal. You don’t need to read books about perfect people going on well planned hikes, you need to read books about people who’ve messed up big and worked hard to figure out how to stop messing up.
If you’re not in that position, I think you might enjoy the fact that it’s a giant adventure. It kills me to say this, because I have a practically irrational hatred for Into the Wild, but I think if you like that book, you’ll like this one. Unless the thing you liked about Into the Wild was Chris McCandless dying……. Cheryl lives, but she has the same kind of rambling adventure McCandless has before his fatal mistakes in Alaska.
I’d like to take a minute before I go to address this genre in general. I read a lot of reviews and one of the big complaints I hear about books like Wild are that they are “whiny” and that the women who write them are self-absorbed white ladies, unaware of their privilege. And sure, that’s true sometimes, but one of the things I think about in terms of memoir is that it so often examines a particularly difficult period in someone’s life incredibly intimately, and that can be ugly sometimes. Memoir isn’t presented as an opportunity for congratulations or giving advice, typically.
A lot of the negative Goodreads reviews about this book seem very angry that Strayed dared to leave her “perfectly good” husband and shame her for making mistakes like doing drugs and being promiscuous. There seemed to be a pervasive concern that Cheryl “doesn’t care” about any of it and that she isn’t tough enough on herself about all the ways she’s messed up. My perspective was that it was exactly the opposite. She cared so much that she hiked the PCT unprepared to break herself from continuing on the unhealthy path she was on. She didn’t know how to stop, so she did something extreme that she wasn’t truly prepared to do.
This is the story of how that happened, not a treatise on how to hike the PCT or advice about how to get over a parent’s death or a divorce or even heroin. If you’ve ever read Strayed’s column Dear Sugar, you know this isn’t how she gives advice. Wild is about Cheryl Strayed trying to find a way back to the person she most wanted to be. So please don’t pick up this book unless you want to hear that story.
Allison Carr Waechter is looking forward to her next off-the-grid adventure in just one week!