Updated: Sep 26, 2019
"You've got to watch Wild," she said. "With Reese Witherswatsit," she added. "And then you've got to read the book."
"S'okay," I said. "I take it I don't have to invite Reese Witherswatsit to accompany me. That might be a bit of an imposition for her?"
Tis a book and a film (just in case you're planning on playing Charades this Christmas) about a very long walk. In America. I've watched the film and now I'm to read the book.
Loved the film by the way.
This, ostensibly, is a book about fear - having it, conquering it and dealing with it. I know that everyone has fear, but there's a unique fear for women generally, instilled in us from TV, film, the news, our upbringing, the fear of being a woman alone: doing alone things in the world.
"I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves...I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave."
In this case being Cheryl Strayed describes her hiking over 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, and with it its gender neutral risks: falling, dehydration, sunstroke, hypothermia, rattlesnakes, bears, coyotes, and mountain lions, as well as, of course, other acts of human idiocy. Then there's the womanhood factor, or rather those benefits and disadvantages of being an attractive woman: being hit on means getting free coffee, getting stores to re-open after they've shut and thumbing lifts. Offset, of course, by the risk of being being raped or murdered. That is the unspoken, but oft-thought of, danger that lurks in every street and, it seems, in every trail: effectively keeping so many of us confined.
"But after walking fifteen minutes on the PCT...not very much like walking at all...resembles less walking than it does hell."
Cheryl Strayed is no stranger to danger or hardship. She's been married and is now recovering from a divorce from the man she still loves, her mother has died four years previously and she's still walking around in the earth-shattering grief of loss, her family has fractured and exploded in every direction, and she's unable to stay in one place for long. She's been wild and reckless: both sexually and with drugs. Packed into her head, she has her painful memories of her heroin-use, her self-loathing and her descent into the quagmire of grief.
"In the mornings, my pain was magnified by about a thousand...there weren't only those sad facts about my life. Now there was also the additional fact that I was a pile of shit."
She's waitressing to fill the time, and to earn enough to get by on. She's lost in every sense of the word. This books takes you through the cataclysmic life choices she's made in unsparing detail, and the challenges she's endured as a novice hiker, trekking through California and Oregon towards Washington, with its deserts and snow-laden mountain ranges. It is truly epic.
Despite her worldliness, her naivety is also demonstrated throughout. The book is great at showing what seasoned hikers do, and what she didn't do - notably testing things out before she goes. She thinks she's been thorough in her research, but learns theory and reality are often poles apart. She learns to laugh at her mistakes, and get the reader to laugh with her. She becomes adroit about finding ways around things rather than quit. Oh, and she has a tremendous over-packing problem. There's a lot to learn from that.
"I had to change...Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be - strong and responsible, clear-eyed, ethical and good...I'd find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous."
Throughout her journey, she references her Guidebook: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1, demonstrating how reading is one thing, but doing it quite another. How the first-hand experience teaches us so much more than listening or reading. Learning from others is all well and good, but moving one's own life from 2-D to 3-D, that's where self-esteem is found - doing things despite yourself, fixing your own mistakes, surviving calamity, and embracing the comedy in it.
"Nothing bad could happen to me, I thought. The worst thing already had."
She talks of dashed expectations, of having to plough on and of having to become resilient to disappointment as she adapts to different terrains: climbing endlessly high mountains, passing across sheer ice, desert heat and sudden storms. The despair when her pace drops below a mile an hour, more like a half mile an hour. Her insecurity of others being fitter and faster, and more experienced. She discovers along the way, that while she started off slow, she became acclimatised within a few weeks, but then the terrain would change and new skills had to be developed. She thought of quitting every ten seconds or so. Later she was to find people she'd made comparisons with, in their favour, had given up and gone home. Again, fostering more belief in herself: a fact she found surprising.
"There was still more up to go, even if first there was a tiny slope that went tantalizingly down."
The thing Cheryl learnt most profoundly was how few choices she ever really had, and how often that meant she had to do the thing she least wanted to do. On the trail, that meant no procrastination, no numbing it with distractions of coffee, sugar, booze, sex or chocolate as we're inclined to do in every day life. She realised how much she had tried to portray a vision of herself to others: starving herself thin, playing cute and dumb so she could feel popular and lovable. On the trail, no amount of manipulation of self-image was necessary. That there really was only one version of herself and she had to embrace it.
"Alone wasn't a room anymore, but the whole world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before."
Having adjusted, indeed become comfortable with being alone, she has intermittent contact along the way, through letters, and interacting with interesting characters: the man who thought she was a woman hobo, the fellow trekkers, the man who threatened her sexually, the man who she desperately wanted to use her condom with - only to have left it at her campsite. And then the ones who gave her lifts when she was low on supplies. How she learns about human kindness, faces her fears and finds fleeting but timely moments of companionship in the messages they carried. She becomes an oddity, almost a celebrity, to others following her along the trail: simply because she's a solo woman hiker. Most are men, and most are in packs of two or three. And yet, the PCT gives them a camaraderie, a shared bond.
"Not enough chicks do that, if you ask me - just tell society and their expectations to go fuck themselves. If more women did that, we'd be better off."
She reconciles her past: permitting herself her feelings of anger, despair, disappointment and hurt by the actions of her mother dying so young, her father being a drunk and woman-beater, her step-father for moving on with a new life. Her siblings for their distance, both emotional and physical. Her husband for being too perfect. That had she not had all these experiences, including her foray into heroin use, she would not have needed this trail. It all changes her perception of herself. She realises that many of her life choices were to escape, but all along she had wanted a sense of identity, a sense of belonging and to just fit.
"I didn't feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn't feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in the world too.
Towards the end of her trail she finds symbolism in the now destroyed mountain of Mazama, previously a 12,000 foot volcano that had erupted and destroyed itself, leaving behind a crater which had healed itself into a lake so stunning all who write about it cannot do it justice before finally disembarking the trail at the Bridge of Gods at the Canadian border.
"All the time I'd been fielding questions about whether I was afraid to be a woman alone - the assumption that a woman alone would be preyed upon - I'd been the recipient of one kindness after another."
It's an exceptional book. I'd go so far as to say that it's been the best read I've had in years. It's vivid, gory, wretched and yet inspiring. I was left with a yearning that I'd love to do something like that. Then as I settled into bed that night I remember I bloody well hate camping. Instead I'm grateful I can live it vicariously, and would encourage any woman who is struggling with trauma, and the confining aftershocks of that, to read it too.
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