After hiking 1,000+ miles of the Appalachian Trail (from the Smokies of North Carolina to the corn fields of Pennsylvania), I finally allowed myself the chance to read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I had been putting this off, not wanting another woman’s long-distance hike to muddy my own, until a friend let me borrow her copy of the book and I felt starved enough of trail time (now off-trail for a conference) to say, “It’s probably time.” For years I had assumed, wrongly, that reading about someone else’s hike would feel redundant, even boring. Instead, reading Strayed’s story has felt as true, as raw, and as validating as hiking on with an open, bleeding wound.
One of the books Strayed brings with her on the PCT is Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, and there’s a scene at the beginning of her trek when she reads Rich’s poem “Power” over and over again. The line that sticks to my woods-loving heart most is the last one: “her wounds came from the same source as her power.” As Strayed realizes at the beginning of her trek, no handbook or gear can prepare you for the mental game of the trail. Everyone comes to the trail for a different reason: a lifelong goal or a whim, saying goodbye to something or someone, an adventure, a search, a clean slate. Then, on the trail, you can ruminate in front of your Sphinx for weeks, talk through the riddle for hours, and follow the green tunnel for weeks or months without having solved, filled, or found what you came for. Yet, along the way, every bruise becomes a badge, every near miss an epic tale, and every step through lost toenails and searing pain makes you into the toughest you have ever been.
That said, being tough doesn’t necessarily help you solve a riddle. Strayed thought, before hiking her first 100 miles of the PCT, that losing her mother to cancer was the hardest thing she had ever done. After 100 miles, the “hardest thing” turns into a list of “hardest things” and Strayed settles on the fact that there are different kinds of hard. While a long and arduous trek, away from all the things in the real world one may or may not be hiding from, will not necessarily solve real-world problems, there is a kind of power you feel building up inside you along the way that can give you the strength to face the Sphinx that waits patiently for you somewhere “back home.” It’s not on the trail, it’s dwelling in the place you left–either in your home town or somewhere deep inside your past self, who you were before you became the person you will be when you finish the trail.
Rather than being caught between “a rock and a hard place,” Strayed describes her struggle on the trail as facing “the bull in front and the bull behind.” Her only option is to continue pressing forward or to turn back, and both directions require a fight. Sure, you could “give up,” but on the trail, even that requires calculation, physical exertion, and willpower. Nearly resolved to “give up,” Strayed decides to press on when she finally encounters another hiker, Greg, who is eager to see her at the next rest point and make a plan for the snow that lies ahead. Like many hikers who stick it out when the going gets tough, the strength Strayed needs comes from a new friend, not from within herself, and arriving at that realization is a battle in itself: we are interdependent beings and it is a mistake to think otherwise for the sake of pride. Even after meeting Greg, Strayed has to walk with her own two feet to get to Kennedy Meadows. She is both alone and not alone in “the great alone” of the trail. The bull in front and the bull behind are parts of her at war: with only two ways to go she fights a continuous battle within herself, making and remaking herself with every step in front or behind.
I’m not sure how this book would read to someone who hasn’t had the experience of long distance hiking, dwelling in a place of constant fluidity and movement, where there is no easy bail-out point or destination. I’ve met people on the trail walking away from addictions, from alcohol to love to fly fishing, who remind me of the woman Strayed describes before her time on the PCT. I’ve also met free spirits who don’t *need* anything from the trail at all, and people who live to give, and people who realize that they had what they were searching for all along. Every journey is unique. Strayed’s is well-told and raw, putting to words many things that I find hard to say. It is very much a story about a daughter coming to terms with who she is and who her mother was, with a few side trails along the way that all lead to the same place: a mother’s love that comes through her wounds and gives her power.