I’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.