May 1, 2012
Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir Wild has gained critical acclaim, visits Pacific University this week.Jenni Luckett | Editor
“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, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.”
In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, Cheryl Strayed tells the story of her three-month solo hike of the PCT, which runs the ridge of the west coast mountain ranges from Mexico to Canada.
Four years after the premature death of her mother, Strayed is ravaged by grief. Her family has dissipated, her marriage has ended, and she has fallen into a cycle of meaningless sexual encounters and heroin use.
She longs to go back in time, to her life before and who she was, and she decides that the hike is the adventure that will change everything.
“I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be—strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I’d walk and think about my entire life. I’d find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous.”
She sets out utterly unprepared, unwrapping new equipment and over-loading it into her backpack in a seedy motel room moments before stepping on the trail. She carries too much weight, too little food and water, and she reads her guidebook for the first time as she walks. She brutalizes her feet in too-small boots, shedding her own toenails on the journey, and she eventually drops a boot off a cliff mid-hike.
Honestly, there are moments along the way when it seems a miracle that she survived at all.
Maybe that’s part of the point: She is as unprepared for the trail as she was, at 22, for life without her mother. She doesn’t know who to be or how. She doesn’t know what to carry and what to let go. She doesn’t know how to take care of herself well.
We all face those challenges in life that we are utterly unprepared to handle: an impromptu journey or ill-planned adventure, the loss of someone who is part of us, even just a new home or job or task that is unfamiliar and scary.
That’s why I love Strayed’s passage about fear, about chanting to herself again and again “I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid.” So many times I’ve done the same—not on something like the PCT, but throughout my life. When I was in Alaska and wanted to hike or ski or try some other new adventure. (“You’re going alone?” my family would gasp, in no way comforted by my fierce determination that I wouldn’t miss an opportunity just because I didn’t have a guide or chaperone.) When it was time to move on and I took a job, sight-unseen, in Wyoming, where I’d have to find a whole set of new friends (truly the most frightening venture for me). When it was time to pack up my family and move home to Oregon, uncertain of where we would live or how we would make ends meet.
“I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid,” we tell ourselves, lying through our teeth in order to keep walking.
Wild is a beautiful account of the Pacific Coast Trail, the variable landscapes of California and Oregon. As a nature narrative alone it is worth the read.
It’s a tale of recovery—though she, of course, can’t go back to who she was before her mother died, Strayed finds in her journey a version of herself that is not stunted by her mother’s absence or family’s dysfunction, a woman who is as strong and brave and independent and OK as she tells herself she can be.
And, it’s a tale of inspiration, of the power of will and determination and maybe a little mind control to help us keep moving forward, whatever our personal journey.
“…Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”
Cheryl Strayed visits Pacific University to present a reading at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 3, in Taylor Auditorium, Marsh Hall, as part of the Visiting Writers Series, sponsored by the Department of English, the College of Arts & Sciences and the English Club.