“WILD.” By Cheryl Strayed. Knopf. $25.95.
Before I read “Wild,” I had never heard of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Now I want to hike it, just like Cheryl Strayed did and writes about in her compelling, warts-and-all book recounting her adventure in the mid-1990s.
As Strayed writes, despite her outdoorsy upbringing in a house that lacked indoor plumbing or running water in rural Minnesota, she was ill-prepared for the 1,000-mile-plus journey from the California desert to the forests of Oregon.
Not that she lacks the physical equipment. She has that in such volume that after she crams her backpack full and ties things to the frame, she can’t even lift it. And when she finally does manage to heave it up on her back, “It still seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle, only now it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.”
And that is before she has walked a single step. She walks through 100-degree heat, rain and snow — and in pain. Her vivid recounting of the pain in her back, her shoulders, her legs and especially her godforsaken feet will bring tears of laughter — and recognition — to anyone who has attempted a lengthy hike, a marathon or any other feat of physical and mental endurance.
To wit about her big toes: “They were so swollen that it looked as if my nails were simply going to pop off. It occurred to me that popping them off might actually be a good idea. I pinched one of the nails and with a solid tug ... The nail gave way and I felt instant almost total relief.”
But the strength of this book also lies in the reasons the author hit the trail. Left adrift by the death of her mother at 45, she recounts the intensity of their love, her anger over her premature death and her sense of loss as the rest of her family drifts apart. And while much of her trek is done in solitude, she meets up with enough interesting characters along the way to keep the story moving at a brisk pace.
Does Strayed find what she’s looking for by spending three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trial? Not really. There’s no epiphany to explain why she dabbled in drugs or casual sex.
But Strayed gives readers such a riveting and unflinching look at her life that you don’t really need answers. The story is gift enough.