Wild is not my memoir. I have never tried cocaine. I have never been divorced. My mother has not died of cancer. I was, however, (much like Cheryl Strayed) raised in a small community in rural northern Minnesota and born somewhere in the middle of the year 1968 and have always aspired to be a writer. In addition, during the summer of 1995, it is true that I moved from Minnesota to California and hiked portions of the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT). And, while I admit that all of these coincidental similarities were enough for me to enjoy Wild maybe a bit more than the average reader, they in no way explain my absolute commitment to this book. That kind of commitment, the kind that I feel toward Wild, can only be earned, not happened upon. And Strayed earns it in spades. She earns it with her fearlessness. Her honesty. Her flawless pacing, smartly chosen details, and self aware (but not self-deprecating or self aggrandizing) delivery of the story. This is a story for all adults, those who have come of age through some sort of ritual, and those who only wish they had.
In a society where we don’t have a ritual to help young people learn what it is to be an adult, Strayed creates her own. In the summer of 1995, at 26 years old, reeling from the death of her mother, the slow dissolving of her family, and the failure of her marriage, Strayed commits herself 1,100 mile trek on the high-altitude Pacific Crest Trail, solo, repeating her mantra the whole way: I am not afraid. Along with her 60+ pound pack, she carries with her a broken heart and devastating mistakes, heavy burdens to be sure. And while this book talks about those burdens, it is never about them more than it is the trip itself. Unlike Eat Pray Love (which I loved, and which Wild resembles in the sense that is about a woman’s search for meaning) Strayed’s voice is not neurotic, frantic, or laced with self pity. Strayed’s is the voice of someone who has walked slowly over the bed of hot coals (barefoot) and stands at the other side, transformed. Contrary to Eat Pray Love, (thankfully) there is no happy ending here, as there shouldn’t be. No one is ever relieved of the burden of suffering by any other person or by achieving a goal, Strayed seems to say, we just grow strong enough to bear it, and come to find comfort in the weight of our own burdens.
As a fan of The Rumpus’s ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column, also written by Strayed, I find Wild to have a similar mix of gut wrenching honesty and hope. The kind of hope that Strayed offers her readers is the kind that we need as people and (to go out on a big limb here) as a society. She offers us hope that, if we face our fears, instead of run from them, if we own our mistakes, instead of blaming others for them, and if we are brave enough to do what our hearts are telling us to do, rather than what might offer us the most money or security, then we’ll be better for it. We’ll survive. We’ll become stronger and happier and, eventually, may even thrive. That’s a message that everyone, particularly every woman, needs to hear today.
More than once since I’ve finished the book and run right up against the wall of my own insecurities, I’ve taken a cue from Wild and repeated my new adopted mantra: I am not afraid. And then I’ve kept going, because that’s all we can do.
Thanks for the advice, Cheryl.