ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: Wild is a beautiful tale 20 years in the making

Heather Allen is a writer and reader in Penticton and is reviewing Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

Leaving the park one day, a reader casually mentioned that I should try Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

Always game to read a recommended book — however obscure — I walked home and uploaded Wild onto my e-reader. I soon learned that more than just a few park-goers were fans of the book.

In fact Wild, the story of one woman’s quest to hike more than 3,000 kilometres through California and Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail, is a New York Times bestseller, and the first selection of Oprah’s revamped book club 2.0.

The memoir begins with the death of Strayed’s mother, who dies suddenly of cancer at the age of 45. Soon after, Strayed feels even more alone in the world. Her stepfather stops acting as her parent, and her siblings drift away. Consumed by grief, Strayed begins to self-destruct — cheating on a husband she loves, and spiralling out of control until she is divorced and living in a squat shooting heroin.

Strayed is either going to die young herself or she is going to do something dramatic to change her life. One day while shopping for a shovel in a snowstorm, she leafs through a book about the Pacific Crest Trail, a wilderness area that runs from Mexico to the Canadian border. Although Strayed has never backpacked, she’s inspired. This is her big moment. She is not only going to hike the trail, she’s going to do it alone.

Many people write as part of a grieving and healing process. While good therapy, the material isn’t always good reading. Wild succeeds because it is so much more than catharsis in nature. It is an intensely personal book, often inspiring, and yet frequently self-deprecating and humorous.

Strayed was thoroughly unprepared for the hike. She imagined herself walking through fields of flowers and watching sunsets from cliff tops. In reality, she set off with a pack she could hardly lift, boots one size too small, and barely enough money to stave off hunger in the few towns she found along the trail.

Instead of her problems, Strayed’s sore shoulders, scabbed hips and shredded feet occupied most of her thoughts. She was so exhausted at the end of her days hiking and so preoccupied with finding food, shelter and water that she didn’t have time to wallow. Strayed hiked the trail alone to sort out and find new direction in life. But even in the wilderness she couldn’t escape the company of others.

As it turns out, PCT hikers are a rare and colourful lot. While at times actually saving her life, they also made Strayed realize that it’s never too late to forge new bonds, to find new love and to gain meaning in a seemingly empty life. Although the book is new, it’s been almost 20 years since Strayed hiked the trail. The book is all the better for the lapse, giving Strayed plenty of time to reflect and write a beautifully-crafted tale.