Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Ballsy Dame's March: WILD by Cheryl Strayed

Since we've dedicated the rest of March to the ballsy dames of women's history, I think it's only right to call attention to a modern day woman of courage.  As I've mentioned before, I'm a fan of memoirs.  I'm also--as Gianna pointed out in an earlier post, a national park junky.  Last spring I started reading books that would be coming out this spring, and there was one book that had the sales force buzzing.  I kept hearing "Have you read  Wild yet?" Alternately, I kept hearing, "It may be tough for you to read Wild."  The people talking to me knew that I loved great narratives, but the ones who really knew me also knew that my mother was, at the time, dying of cancer.  The book isn't an impersonal read.
Cheryl Strayed

What am I talking about?  Cheryl Strayed's memoir is the story of her breakdown after the sudden loss of her mother to cancer, a loss that ripped apart her family and left her reeling.  She had a failed marriage, she was abusing alcohol and drugs, she worked as a waitress, and didn't see a way out of the hole into which she'd sunk.  One day, walking through a REI in Minnesota, she saw a hiking guide that called to her.  Months later she set out--almost broke, woefully under-prepared, and completely alone--to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  The PCT is the West Coast equivalent to the more famous Appalachian Trail, running from Mexico to Canada, from 100 degree deserts to snow covered mountains, traversing some of the most beautiful and dangerous wilderness on the planet.  Hell, Gianna freaks out when she's driving alone on a back road; can you imagine her hiking it?

Cheryl wasn't a hiker when she set off in the California Desert, walking north toward her endpoint, the Columbia River Gorge separating Oregon and Washington, a thousand miles away.  She crammed 80 lbs of gear into her backpack, dubbed 'Monster,' and then she couldn't actually lift that backpack.  She lost her hiking boot off the side of a mountain, for crying out loud.  Along the way she lives with the fear of bears and snakes and mountain lions, and strangers on the trail, and storms.  Her feet hurt--really fucking hurt--and she's trudging 20+ miles a day on them.  The hike is her test.

Along the way, Cheryl meets an amazing group of fellow hikers, and they form a community winding in and out of her story and helping her continue her journey.  She doesn't so much contemplate the state of her life as hike her way out of her head.  Nothing really appears as she had imagined it when she was still in the Midwest, but that's not the point.  The point, of course, is the journey.  The point is survival.

Last spring, while hiking in Yosemite National Park,
I took this picture--the place where my trail intersects
the Pacific Crest Trail. I hesitated...why not just keep
hiking?  I finally had to turn back.  Maybe someday....
Last fall my sister went to the Smokey Mountains for a friend's birthday party trip.  We had lost my mother, and we were all (and still are) working through our grief.  My sister, like me, loves national parks, and she planned to hike in the mountains and break away for awhile from her group of friends.  I had given her an advance reader's copy of Wild to read on the plane.  Her reading tastes and mine aren't always the same--I read more international and literary fiction and she reads more adventure fiction and nonfiction.  This book, though, affected both of us.  It's a story that's about what to do when the pieces of your life break apart, and it's also the damn funny account of how to sort of cram them back together and lug them 1,000 miles in a too big backpack.

I've been waiting for this week for almost a year now, the week that Wild finally goes on sale.  Now I can encourage everyone--men and women, memoir fans and nature fans, fish out of water book fans, and even people like Gianna--to read this book.  This isn't Eat, Pray, Love--this is Cheryl Strayed, who packed a box of condoms for the trail, you know, just in case.  This is Cheryl who fantasizes about Snapple.  This is Cheryl who was just revealed as "Dear Sugar," the advice columnist for The Rumpus.  This is Cheryl, warts and beauty marks and all.

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