Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
As Reviewed By Ted Odenwald
Cheryl Strayed’s surname is basically a self-imposed label which she took legally when she divorced. “I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the world as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days…I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that in fact I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.” She changed her name after the devastating loss of her mother, her demolition of her marriage to a good, supportive man, and her self-destructive journey into the world of heroin. This memoir records her long painful journey to re-discovering her healthy soul and her inner voice. This was not a figurative sojourn, but rather an arduous and often periolous 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail.
It is hard to imagine a person less qualified for this undertaking. She was inexperienced in hiking; all of her knowledge about her project—the trail, equipment, supplies, personal care—came from books. Her boots were poorly fitted, causing excruciating pain. She overpacked; nowhere in her months of hiking did she see anyone carrying a larger or heavier pack than her “Monster.” Her commitment seemed questionable, as her decision to undertake her “walkabout” seemed to be based on desperate impulsiveness rather than on logical planning. Her funds were limited, and she relied on a fragile re-supply line—dependent on her ability to reach her next base station—at least 100 miles from each of her previous stops. This quest seemed doomed to failure.
Wild traces Strayed’s pilgrimage to piece her life together. Beginning in the Mojave Desert, she walked along the Sierra Nevada through California, through Oregon along the Cascades, and into Washington. There were dangerous encounters with rattlesnakes, black bears, and trail bums. More threatening, however, were weather conditions. Extreme heat threatened dehydration and enervation. Questionable water resources dictated reliance upon iodine pills for purification. Cold areas contained several icy paths, necessitating treacherous crossings near the edges of steep cliffs.
Cheryl learned to appreciate the few luxuries that her journey provided: the occasional burger and fries in the few outposts or small towns close to the Crest Trail; the infrequent warm shower offered by campgrounds or nearby inns; the mattressed bed in the shell of a cabin, trailer, or rural home; truck rides offered when sections of the Trail proved impassable due to enormous accumulations of snow and ice; the opportunity to wash her limited wardrobe; a new pair of boots that provided some relief for her painful feet.
In some ways, Wild resembles a picaresque novel, in that the protagonist, a bit of a rogue, encountered a variety of characters in various unconnected episodes. Few people appeared more than two or three times in her narrative because Cheryl traveled alone on the trail at a slower pace than most trekkers, and she rarely stopped for more than a couple of days for rest and recuperation. She met a father-son team, who appeared to be expert hikers. The father generously helped her to reevaluate what she was carrying—and to lighten her load. A ranger provided shelter, food, and wine; Cheryl had all she could do to avoid other offerings that he was making. A writer for a Hobo newspaper refused to accept her explanation that she was not a hobo. A trio of young men, impressed with her courage and persistence as they crossed her path several times, gave her the moniker, “Queen of the PCT.”
Strayed’s pilgrimage was a success, a heroic effort that had begun as an apparently ill-advised impulse. She was willing to withstand harsh conditions, continuous pain, and seemingly endless challenges in order to prevail. Her 1,100-mile trek was a tremendous victory. But more importantly, she purged her old self, learning how to forgive herself for horrible mistakes. Her memoir, written nearly 20 years after her journey, demonstrates that she had found her inner self and her voice—one which was powerful, clear, self-assured and at peace.
Ted Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 41 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.