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Book review: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

Reviewed by Kathleen Keenan

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild is the moving, surprisingly engrossing account of her 1,100-mile solo hiking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail. After the death of her mother and a devastating divorce, then-22-year-old Strayed decides on a whim to hike the Trail after finding a guidebook in an outdoor store.

From inauspicious beginnings in a dusty California parking lot, struggling with her overloaded pack, Strayed makes her way up to Oregon by hiking, camping, and occasionally hitchhiking. She encounters and often depends upon the kindness of complete strangers along the way, but the memoir is ultimately the story of how she comes to terms with her mother’s death, forgives herself for her mistakes—including those that led to her divorce—and figures out what kind of life she wants to have back in civilization.

Cheryl Strayed

The story of a woman walking alone through the wilderness for three months may sound tedious, but Strayed’s powerful writing and insightful look at her family’s history make Wild an inspiring, even gripping adventure story. She is a compelling and relatable narrator who writes about her Minnesota childhood, failed marriage, and fractured family relationships with wry humour. Before beginning the hike, she freely admits she is underprepared for her journey, but feels the desperate need to do something big to get her life back on track.

She meets setbacks with a mix of steely resolve and resignation: she sings to keep away bears and tackles icy mountain trails in northern California with the help of a bright pink ski pole. Fans of Strayed’s advice column for online literary magazine The Rumpus, recently anthologized in the book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar, will also recognize her fierce empathy for everyone she meets as she encounters other lost souls on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Wild is not just the story of a three-month hike, however. Strayed glosses over the technical aspects of her trip in favour of her real interest: finding the courage to own up to the past and move forward. After berating herself for cheating on her husband and driving away her family, Strayed takes stock of her losses: her mother, her marriage, and a pair of hiking boots that go sailing over the mountainside, leaving her with only a broken pair of sandals until her next supply stop.

“There was only one [option], I knew,” she writes. “There was always only one. To keep walking.” When she finally reaches the end of her journey, Oregon’s Bridge of the Gods, Strayed reflects gratefully on making her destination: “Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know, though I felt it somehow already contained within me.” Strayed’s solo adventure leaves her with a sense of self-reliance, strength, and grace that will move all readers, not just her fellow hikers.

(Knopf / 336 pgs / March 2012 / CDN$29 in hardcover)

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