Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (review)

Last week, my wife started reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. She couldn't put it down. I was sick in bed with the flu, and was looking for anything that would distract me from feeling sorry for myself, so I got the Kindle version. The story was so enthralling that I sometimes forgot I was sick for minutes at a stretch.

Wild is Strayed's account of the time she went on a 1,100-mile trek by herself along the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. She was 26 years old. Months before, her mother had died, and she had been dealing with marital problems, destructive promiscuity, drug abuse, and other issues that were dragging her down. Her life was in a catastrophic tailspin. She decided that a 3-month hike was what she needed.

Her friend drove her to California and dropped her off at a motel in a Mojave Desert town. Strayed hadn't yet packed her backpack. She just had boxes of stuff she'd brought along with her on the ride. In the motel she crammed her belongings into the backpack. When she'd finished packing she realized she could hardly lift the backpack off the floor. She also had to wear a dromedary bag, which held about 20 pounds of water. The dromedary bag and the backpack together were so heavy that she could barely stand up. What's more, her hiking boots did not fit well. Nevertheless, she hitched a ride to the trailhead and began her trek.

The story alternates between Strayed's adventures on the trail, and flashbacks about growing up with a hippie mother, surviving a father that beat her mother and horribly abused and neglected Strayed and her siblings, and how Strayed intentionally ruined a marriage with a man she loved and who loved her back. Both threads were interesting, but my favorite parts were her stories of the Pacific Crest Trail and her experiences with bad weather, high-altitudes, bears, rattlesnakes, and especially people, most of whom became close friends with Strayed. Of all of her encounters with people, only two of were negative, and neither of were life-threatening, but rather annoying, and in one case fairly frightening.

Strayed's physical challenges were many: her pack was cripplingly heavy, she barely had any money and was often half-starved, her boots were ruining her feet, and she was frequently in danger of running out of water in places where the temperature was scorching. It's remarkable she didn't give up from sheer physical pain.

Her mental challenges were even greater. Many times throughout Wild she wonders why she embarked on the hike or why she'd acted the way she had in the past. She screams into the silent wilderness about the mistakes she'd made and the pain she felt. She is such a terrific writer that these moments of self-pity make the story more believable and interesting. Reading about how awful she often felt on the trail made me feel less sorry for myself being sick. It's much better to have a 102 degree fever in a comfortable bed with access to anything you want than it is to be sick and cold at 12,000 feet with sleet coming down while you pitch a tent and cook beans on a camp stove. Or, maybe it isn't, at least not all the time.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed


  1. BBC Radio Four did an abridged reading of Wild as the Book Of The Week a couple of weeks ago. The scene on the mountaintop with the hiking boots and the story about water in Death Valley were especially striking.

  2. I can’t wait to add this to my stack.  Did you know she is also the wonderful writer behind “Dear Sugar”?

  3. One of my favorite books in recent years. I love the opening of Wild in which she describes the moment when one of her boots, an ill fitting thing that had slowly chewed off several of her toenails over the course of her hike, tumbled from a cliff where she had sat it while she rested her feet.  Her reaction to this event was funny and deeply human.

    Cheryl writes the “Dear Sugar” advice column at therumpus, worth checking out if you enjoy her writing.

    If you like writing by reflective souls in the wilderness, “Salt to Summit” and “Fire Season” are recent books in a similar vein I thought were pretty good.

  4. How much of the recent interest in this book is because of the Almost Fearless book club? My wife just read this, too, because of the club. http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1159428-january-2013-wild-by-cheryl-strayed

  5. Every year, more than 600 people attempt to walk the entire distance from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. Around 50% of them will actually make it the whole distance. I have made the walk twice and each experience was uniquely wonderful. There were body trauma and harrowing experiences, but they were offset by the beauty and camaraderie encountered along the way.

    If you do your research before your summer of adventure you will probably have a much better experience than Cheryl did. But that might not make as good of a book.

  6. I remember 20+ years ago seeing an ad in the travel section of the paper for a walking tour from Cape Town to Alexandria.  I was tempted, but couldn’t really take five months off work.

  7. You might be interested in the guidebook to the Pacific Crest Trail published by Cicerone Press. http://www.cicerone.co.uk/product/detail.cfm/book/588/title/the-pacific-crest-trail If Cheryl had read this before starting off on her walk it might have saved her a lot of pain and discomfort. It is a fantastic trail whether you walk it in its entirety or walk a short section.
    I have now through-hiked the trail three times and it’s so good I hope to go back and do it again before my body gives way to old age.

  8. This is one of the better trail books out there. Right up there with Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail and and Jennifer Hanson’s Continental Divide Trail: One Woman’s Journey. (And, I suppose, Bill Bryson’s  ‘A Walk in the Woods’) Interspersed with the trail bits are the bits about Cheryl’s life, her mother’s death, her descent into drug addiction and how she destroyed her marriage. I liked the trail parts better than the personal parts, so I’m really only recommending this as a trail book but fans of autobiography will probably enjoy it too.

    1.  i liked the book, in addition to  Bill Bryson’s.  thanks for reminding me.  the word “addiction” here might overshoot a bit. 

      1. You’re right, I should have said “Dabbling in dangerous drugs” she was never really a junkie.

        Also I forgot to mention AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, one of my favourite trail books.

  9. Just finished this book.  My mother just passed away from cancer a few months ago and the images portrayed in the book were very visceral for me.  I’m also an avid hiker.  she made me laugh and cry on repeat.  I live in Portland and hike and recreate near mt. hood, Columbia River Gorge, crater lake, ollallie lake, and she put me right back in those places…

Comments are closed.