Wild by Cheryl Strayed

wildI’ve been avoiding reading this for years, mostly because in my head I had it pegged in the vein of Eat, Pray, Love: privileged white lady gets divorced, does something totally radical and unexpected, and boom! enlightenment and empowerment. I do not need any more of those books in my in my life.

But then, last January, I read Tiny Beautiful Things, a book so wise and funny and beautiful I had trouble breathing through most of it, fell hard for Cheryl Strayed, and realized that Wild was not in that vein at at all. It’s a book about grief. Onto my TBR it went, and I finally got around to reading it (a year later).

I wholeheartedly enjoyed it, although I did not love it as much as I was hoping to. It wasn’t because of the “privileged white girl goes on adventure” trope, which is virtually non-existent. Yes, it’s a book about a woman who chooses to go on a challenging adventure by herself–but it’s not a whim and it’s not for thrills. It’s not even a given that she can–she saves up money in order to do the trip and she’s consistently broke throughout. When she sets out on the trail, she’s woefully underprepared, but it has much more to do with grief than with being irresponsible. She’s a young woman who has lost her mother and her way. Her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, to me, felt like a life or death decision: it was the only way forward.

What ended up happening was that the story of the trail took precedence to all the other stories contained in this book. I loved reading about the trail. Strayed is a fantastic writer, and so adept at capturing moments. It was easy to get lost in her beautiful, funny, sometimes terrifying, and always self-refelcive anecdotes about life on the PCT. But at some point, it started to feel as if all of the minutia of the trail–the hitchhiking, the various people she met, the food she was and was not eating, her aches and pains, the wildlife, the weather–drowned out what a writing teacher of mine would call the “inside story”.

The inside story is what made this book beautiful. Adventure stories are good fun, but in order for a book to mean something to me, it’s got to have a so what? Wild has one, a big one. The inside story is a story about grief and transformation; more specifically, about experiencing overwhelming grief as a young person. Strayed’s mother died when she was twenty-two, and it exploded her life. Wild is about the aftermath of that explosion, and the remarkable path Strayed takes back to herself by hiking 1000 miles through the wilderness. But at times that story disappeared, and I just didn’t want to hear about how desperately she wanted a cheeseburger, again.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved this book. It is warm and wise and graceful and irreverent–all the things I’ve come to expect from Strayed since falling in love with her Dear Sugar columns. As a lifelong hiker, I loved reading about the PCT and the culture of long-distance hiking. There is so much in Wild about how we experience grief, about all the completely unexpected ways that it manifests in our lives, and also about all the unexpected moments of healing and solace that we often stumble into without noticing. It’s also a fascinating mediation on solitude and the importance of living with our own selves–on what we can discover when we’re quiet.

But as much as I loved it, it just didn’t move me in the way that some of her essay-letters from Dear Sugar in Tiny Beautiful Things did. Maybe it’s because I’ve read some truly exceptional memoirs recently (When They Call You A Terrorist, H is For Hawk, The Fact of a Body) and my bar is exceptionally high. Maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe it’s just me. There’s only so many “standing on the highway with my thumb out” scenes I can read. Regardless, Wild was still a big and openhearted memoir, one that I’m glad I finally read and absolutely recommend.

But Tiny Beautiful Things, for me, is Cheryl Strayed at her absolute best, and the book that will stay with me for years and years to come.

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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  1. I totally agree! I was resistant to reading Wild because of the Eat Pray Love phenomenon and I was kind of embarrassed to be seen reading it at first. But then I realized its amazing and about so much more than it was made out to be with all the hype. Cheryl is a really wise person. This book had such a good combo of nature writing and true lesson learning. I read it at a time when I felt particularly uprooted and confused also so that probably deepened my love for it. I need to re read it this summer!

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    1. Yes, she is so wise. It was really interesting reading it after reading Tiny Beautiful Things, in which she is also so amazingly wise. One thing I really liked about it was how open she is about all her mistakes and bad decisions and mess-ups. Also she was so tender toward her young, confused, grieving self. It’s so comforting to see people you admire so vulnerable.

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    1. Yeah, though I ended up enjoying it overall, there were some repetitive moments. It’s interesting because I think the all-consuming nature of the trail is part of what made it so healing and transformative for her, but the story suffered because of it.

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  2. Have you watched the film? I have just seen Wild on list of books to read in 20s – I’m too late for that! I found letters in tbt entertaining but not moving. Don’t know whether to read / watch wild.

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    1. I haven’t seen the film. I can’t say I’m especially moved to, as I enjoyed the book but wasn’t head over heels for it. I can see how it would be a good book to read in your 20s–I was too late for that too! It’s about grief and figuring yourself out, but especially as a young person. If you weren’t so into TBT you might like Wild better–it’s more story, but I also found it less emotionally engaging, so who knows?!

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  3. I really enjoyed this book. I might have liked Cheryl to go deeper into the heart of the emotional reality of her experiences, but as a writer of memoirs myself, I’ve found that self-examination to be just about the hardest part of writing memoir — and done well, the perhaps the most rewarding to read. I did finish the book and then started it over for a second read, and I really felt it helped me to see how facing adversity, even adversity we chose to go through gratuitously, can bring a preternatural experience of spiritual recovery. Now I want to pass myself through adversity but can’t think of what kind would work. 😉

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