This week, I finished reading Cheryl Strayed's memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012). My best friend recommended it to me about a year ago, actually, so it's been on my list. I tend to like books about adventure and travel and, as an introvert, I'm always interested in the phenomenon of solitude, so this book was, in many ways, right up my alley.
In 1995, the then-26-year-old Strayed decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon--a total of about 1100 miles. The journey was, in many ways, an effort to reclaim her life and her sense of self. After the death of her mother, Strayed... well, strayed, actually, into infidelity and drug use, a path that cost her her marriage to a man she loved deeply.
So Strayed's memoir is both a hike-narrative and a reflection on her past. As the title suggests, it's an attempt to explain how she went from "lost" to "found."
I actually enjoyed the book as I was reading it. But now that I've finished it and had a couple of days to think about it, I confess, I have a few misgivings.
On the one hand, having completed the book, I've grown increasingly aware that Strayed didn't really spend all that much time describing the Pacific Crest Trail itself.
Yes, there were descriptions of her hikes and her camp sites, and yes, in a few brief instances she offered insight into the historical background of the Trail and a few scenic points along the way. But if you're looking for a hike-narrative that showcases a narrator who really reflects on the natural world around her and thinks about what she sees and her place in the larger scheme of things, this probably isn't the book for you--it's a bit light on those particular points.
Which leads me to my second misgiving. Strayed goes from "lost" to "found," perhaps, but the entire trajectory encompasses her ongoing reflections about ... herself. From beginning to end. There's no real effort to think about what her words or behavior might look like from the point of view of anyone else (her mother, her siblings, her stepfather, her husband) and as a result, I felt like a lot of the self-reflection pretty quickly degenerated into self-justification.
"Why did I sleep around and ruin my marriage? I don't know, but I slept around. I just did."
"Why did I do heroin? Was I trying to self-destruct? Maybe. I'm sure I wasn't an addict, though."
As far as epiphanies and self-awareness go, I've read better.
One reviewer said that if you don't mind listening to a friend complain constantly about his/her own stupidity, you won't mind Strayed's memoir. While that's a bit harsh, I would agree that the reviewer has a point.
Because I too grew a bit tired of hearing about how, yes, she knew it was "wrong" (maybe?) to use heroin, but she wasn't addicted... really... and yes, she knew it was "wrong" (maybe?) to cheat on her husband (repeatedly), and she felt absolutely terrible when she confessed all of this too him and it was obvious he loved her and all, BUT...
You see what I mean. I kept telling myself, "She's young, she's young," but at one point, I got annoyed and answered myself: "YEAH, but she's not THAT young, and this behavior is really kinda self-involved and stupid."
And for me, that was what was missing from the book: a direct acknowledgment of just how self-involved and stupid some of her choices were. I didn't get the sense that she really came to that level of self-realization by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail--instead, it seemed that the trail served a more cathartic purpose, helping her cope with her mother's death at age 45 from cancer.
As far as the hike itself, a couple of things bothered me. The first was the repeated references to losing her toenails because her hiking boots were too small.
Now granted, I get skeeved out when people's toenails fall out, and yes, I know it happens. But I don't want to hear about it. I just don't. I was willing to let it go the first time, but when she kept mentioning it, it seemed a bit juvenile, actually.
To me, it was like the elementary school kid who does the gross thing that makes everyone go "Ewwwww...". At some point, they're just doing it to make people go "ewww"--to me, that was the only point to the repeated toenail-descriptions.
In all honesty, I don't really know how Strayed managed to hike as far as she did, given the condition of her feet. It seemed to me that, at some point, continuing on was really kind of senseless, actually. Because with the exception of one other equally inexperienced hiker, it didn't seem like others on the trail had the extensive foot-issues that she faced. Probably because they made sure their hiking boots fit before they, you know, went hiking. For a thousand miles.
Which leads me to the second thing that bothered me about the hike. Strayed really didn't know what she was doing and she really didn't have any hiking experience. To spontaneously decide to undertake an 1100-mile hike without really doing any research or learning anything about how to survive beyond what the salespeople at REI tell you, isn't a noble undertaking, in my book.
It's just silly and risky and rather self-centered.
Add to all of this the fact that Strayed comes across as a bit... boy-crazy. I'm using the teenage language here, because that was really how it came across after a while: she's boy-crazy.
Because every time we rounded a bend on the trail, we seemed to come upon a "stunningly" or "startlingly" handsome man.
At first, I kind of laughed and chalked it up to coincidence, but after about the fifth time it happened, I came to the conclusion that Strayed was probably setting the bar rather low.
Because she contemplated sleeping with several of these guys, within (what seemed like) mere minutes of meeting them. And at other times, she found herself compelled to fend off a couple of creepy dudes that no woman in her right mind would have chatted with or shared a drink with or whatever.
Suffice to say, I was not amused by her "Gee, it turns out, I'm the prettiest girl on the whole Pacific Crest Trail" routine. Give it up, sister, and hike. Just... hike.
So all this to say, by the end, I was getting a little jaded and tired of her... persona.
In fact, my reaction was, "You know, if I hiked 1100 miles, I'm pretty damn sure I wouldn't encounter this many sexually attractive guys who just happen to all be sexually attracted to me as well. And I'm quite certain that if my toenails fell off and I couldn't really lift my backpack because it was so heavy and I ran out of water in the desert, I'd be giving myself a serious talking to about getting myself better informed about what I was doing before I went out and tried to do it."
In the end, I was reminded of a comment that Jon Krakauer included in his book Into The Wild, about 22-year-old Christopher McCandless who hiked into the Alaskan wild and ultimately died there.
One of Krakauer's readers commented on an early version of the story: he said that hiking into the wilderness with no awareness of the possible risks and no knowledge of the skills needed to survive is both selfish and disrespectful. The reader had no patience with the romanticized idea that one could simply "find" oneself out in the wild: he speculated that it was nothing short of miraculous when individuals who did such things actually lived to tell the tale.
Strayed was, as she herself admits, one of the lucky ones who did.