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April 16, 2012

“Wild”

by Anne Paddock

Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild”  is a 43-year old writer, wife, and mother who lives in Portland, Oregon.  When Strayed was 22 years old, she lost her 45-year old mother to lung cancer and spent the next four years alternating between trying to preserve her family and her marriage, both of which disintegrated by the time she was 26 years old. Recognizing the need for a change, Strayed (the name she chose for herself after her divorce) set out to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 2,663 mile trail that lies east of the Pacific coast from California to Washington, and then write about the experience.

With no long distance hiking experience and with “Monster” – Strayed’s nickname for her very heavy backpack – on her back, Strayed started her personal and physical journey in the Mojave Dessert in Southern California with ill-fitting boots and wholly unprepared for what was ahead of her. The physical demands of hiking the trail in harsh weather conditions that varied from intense heat to ice and snow, brings Strayed to her knees but she won’t give up and quit. She endures blisters upon blisters, lost toenails, chaffed skin, falls, scratches, cuts, rattlesnakes, bears and wild beasts with horns, and men that threaten to take away what she came to find and yet these experiences propel her forward. She quickly realizes her sorrows are secondary to her will to survive:

I set out to hike the trail so I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind. Why, oh why, had my good mother died and how is it I could live and flourish without her? How could my family, once so close and strong, have fallen apart so swiftly and soundly in the wake of her death? What had I done when I’d squandered my marriage…

Through the ups and downs of Strayed’s 4 month hike, the author alternates between her struggles on the trail and the incidents in her life that brought her to the trail.  Aside from the three major events described above, Strayed describes life with her mother and siblings after her father deserted the family  and there are both happy and sad memories.  Strayed’s mother kept the family together but leaves this world admitting “I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life.” Strayed is determined to be in the driver’s seat of her life and demonstrates the mettle she is made of on the PCT.

The most disturbing part of the book is the story of how Strayed decides to deal with her mother’s horse, Lady and for those that do not want to know and prefer to read about it in the book, don’t read on.

When Strayed was 6 years old, her mother buys Lady, a horse that is 16 hands tall, “lean and long-limbed, high-stepping and elegant as a queen.” For 16 years, her mother does whatever she has to in order to keep and care for Lady from cleaning stalls to hauling hay and taking odd jobs. Strayed believes that Lady saved her mother’s life and gave her mom a reason to choose life when life betrayed her in so many other ways.  After Strayed’s mother passes away, Lady languishes from neglect and this is heartbreaking in both the process and the outcome.

At 22 years old, Strayed can be forgiven for not taking responsibility (claiming her stepfather should have taken responsibility because he was married to her mom but honestly, Lady pre-dated the stepfather) for the horse and an err in judgement 3 years later in how she ends Lady’s life, but not without a sick pit in your stomach and tears streaming down your face as you read the passage. Those six pages are troubling and stayed with me long after the book was finished.  Although a reader may come to understand why this story was included in the book and how it was just one more awful situation that drove Strayed to the trail, the disturbing nature of the story is haunting.

Halfway through her pilgrimage, Strayed realizes that the experience she is undertaking is timeless, just as those that conceived the trail’s existence believed.

It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even from getting from Point A to point. B.  It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild.With what it was like to walk for  miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental.”

The title of the book seems to have come from this realization but the message in the book came from Cheryl Strayed who drove herself to finish what she set out to accomplish.

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