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
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.