In the past couple of weeks, I have read the memoir “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and seen the movie version of it starring Reese Witherspoon. My reaction to both the book and the movie was a constant oscillation between “Strayed is amazing!” and “Strayed is batshit crazy!”
Strayed’s memoir is about a period in her early twenties after her mother died suddenly of cancer at the age of 45. Reeling with grief, Strayed’s life started to unravel with her self-destructive behavior. She became promiscuous, used heroin, and divorced her kind and loving husband while on her downward spiral.
One day, Ms. Strayed, who had never done an overnight hiking trip in her life, decided it would be a good idea to hike 1000 or so miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. “Wild” is her account of both her downward spiral and the hiking trip that helped her recover from her grief.
“Wild” is not a hiking guide or a self-help book. It is a memoir, a work of literature. Strayed writes beautifully and honestly about the beauty of the landscape she traversed, but also, frequently about the physical pain she endured. Her backpack, which she affectionately called “Monster,” was way, way too heavy for her. Not only was it difficult to walk with such a burden on her back, but it left her seriously bruised and blistered. Even worse were her feet. I don’t know if this is common for long-distance hikers, but her feet were in constant agony and she lost six toenails by the end of the trip.
Nonetheless, her book was inspiring to me. I have done a little bit of hiking I my life, but not a great deal. And I certainly do not enjoy pain. But what she wrote about the healing effects of strenuous outdoor activity makes sense to me:
“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away. By the end of that second week, I realized that since I’d begun my hike, I hadn’t shed a single tear.” (92)
Strayed suggests that there is something about strenuous effort or—to be more blunt—physical pain in the wilderness that can make a person stronger, not just physically, but also emotionally. Whereas heroin and sex were attempts to get outside of herself, Strayed realized on her hike that she need to stay inside herself in order to heal.
“But walking along a path I carved myself. . . was the opposite of using heroin. . . Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”
So I am now inspired by Strayed to experience more of the strenuous outdoor life. Yet, I still think hiking 1100 miles by oneself is crazy. I’m not interested in doing anything like that. However, I would like to get out into nature more often than I normally do. So here is my compromise, my very Mild response to Strayed’s “Wild” adventure.
Strayed hiked a total of approximately 1100 miles. My goal is to do 1100 miles this summer, by combining biking and hiking. I pledge to hike a total of 100 miles and bike a total of 1000 miles this year. I am no Cheryl Strayed, so these miles will be cumulative, not all at once.
I live in Minnesota, so I can’t really get outside until probably late April, when the snow melts and the temperatures are regularly above freezing. Because of the generally crappy climate I live in, I henceforth declare the spinning classes can count toward my mileage.
I will update my blog periodically about my progress, so stay tuned!