Good readers make good writers: A review of Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”
I want to start reviewing books here on the Center’s blog because, as I often tell my students when they make a particularly strong insight or connection in response to a reading, good readers make good writers.
I recently finished Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, which is about the author’s adventures hiking the Pacific Crest Trail—alone.
That’s right. Strayed, an inexperienced hiker, a grief-stricken 26-year-old whose mother had just died, a “wild child” dabbling dangerously with men and drugs, and above all other identifications most relevant to her aloneness, a woman, took off into the treacherous Pacific Northwest.
I don’t mean to diminish Strayed or any woman, but the fact of her gender stands out to me because I’m not sure I could do what she did. Girls are raised to be afraid of walking home alone, nevermind embarking on adventures without the safety of men or at least numbers. Strayed herself recounts in several places in the book how often she was asked if she was afraid. She says she repeated “I am not afraid” to herself as a kind of mantra, to push back against any fears that might be creeping in. I as a reader started saying the same thing to myself when she encountered rattlesnakes, but especially when she found herself unexpectedly in the presence of men she didn’t know.
Most of those encounters ended without incident. There was one tense scene near the end of the book, when a man commented on her body and kept circling back on the trail and finding her again. He didn’t want to leave her alone. Strayed recalled how just before he made his presence known, she’d been bathing, naked and vulnerable and, as always, alone.
“I am not afraid.” How easy to say, and how difficult to actualize. That’s the heart of this book, for me. Nothing Strayed does here, from burying her mother after a swiftly catastrophic illness, to losing her stepfather to a new family, to “breaking [her] own heart” by coming clean about infidelity and being divorced by her beloved husband, to hiking over 1,100 miles on rough terrain in too-small boots, is easy. But (spoiler alert) she does it, all of it. Her femaleness and whether she is afraid or not are inconsequential to the facts of her survival and perseverance. Wild is the story of various empowerments.
Strayed’s writing is skilled; she weaves a story that is simultaneously rife with emotion and the specific jargon and expertise of backpack hiking. She undertakes a journey that even she herself isn’t sure she is strong enough to complete, but she does. I’m as impressed by the writer’s easy rhythm as I am the hiker’s steadfastness; she had several opportunities to quit, to turn back, to end her journey prematurely, to join others for help and companionship, but she grows fond of her solitude., Though her intention was always self-discovery, even Strayed seems surprised by what she learns. Primarily, her lesson is that she doesn’t really need anyone. Despite her grief and mourning for her lost families—her family of origin and the one she intended to create with her husband—Strayed comes to accept that she can survive on next to nothing, in the middle of nowhere, miles from another living soul. Not only can she survive, in fact, but she can come to enjoy and take pride in her hike. From her aloneness, she learns not to despair, but to draw reserves of strength and confidence she didn’t know she had before.
This is the kind of book you read that makes you think, simultaneously, yes, I want to do that and there’s no way I could do something like that. And that statement refers as much to the hiking journey as the writing of the book itself. I want to write something that makes people want to strap on a pair of well-fitting boots and go see parts of the world many will never see. Cheryl Strayed has written that something—a memoir that sits on the overlap of human curiosity and healing redemption.
Have you or will you read Wild? Share your thoughts in the comments.