Early in Wild, Strayed describes one of the things that struck her in the early days of her hike. It comes into the story just after she’s scrambled up a clump of low trees to avoid a bull on the trail:
“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go. The bull, I acknowledged grimly, could be in either direction, since I hadn’t seen where he’d run once I closed my eyes. I could only choose between the bull that would take me back and the bull that would take me forward.
And so I walked on.”
That sums up fairly well one of the reasons that a long-distance hike really appeals to me. It strips away everything nonessential. The choices are clearer—if not easier—because there are fewer of them. Strayed doesn’t say that hiking the trail is easy, but at the point in her life at which she hiked it, her life off the trail was just as difficult for different reasons. So she could choose to travel off the trail or on the trail and would encounter hardships whichever path she chose. This idea really resonates with me.
The story itself was riveting. Part of that was the content, but what really drew me along was the structure of the story. The body of the story pretty much follows her trek along the trail. As she walks along and thinks back over the things that brought her to the trail, the things from which she was running, she brings the reader along with her in her thoughts and reveals her story that way. The book begins with a tantalizing portion of a misadventure which could easily have had a very bad ending (but which we’re pretty sure she gets out of because she clearly survived to write the book). All through the story, I was then looking for the point at which that opening scene takes place. When it finally arrived, I found the closure satisfying, even as I realized that the details left out in the first incomplete telling make the misadventure a little less harrowing than it seemed in those first pages.
It had some of the common idiosyncrasies I’ve come to associate with memoirs—occasional melodramatic/overly emotional language, repetition of pet words and phrases (like “shattered” to describe her emotional state or the phrase “hunching in a remotely upright position,” which I know she repeated intentionally for comic effect but which for me appeared too many times in too few pages). But while I noticed these things, they didn’t particularly detract from the story for me.
I did get the unpleasant voyeuristic sensation I often get when I read memoirs, but I mostly pushed that to the back of my mind. The exception was when she describes a sexual encounter with a guy she meets in her travels. All through the book, I tried my best to put myself in her shoes, but when I got to that part, I kept thinking about how she had this experience with a real person and then she not only presumably at least attempted to contact him in the course of writing the book (which in itself would be almost unthinkable to me) but then wrote in a fair amount of detail about their experience together. It was—ahem—compelling reading, but I had trouble getting past the reality that she’d revealed such a thing in her book…and that I can’t really imagine a time in my life when I would feel comfortable doing the same. I’m not sure I’d ever be able to look my mother-in-law in the eye again if I wrote something like that and knew that she’d read it. But then, maybe if I’d succeeded in hiking the length of California and Oregon, I’d have less fear about feeling uncomfortable at family gatherings.
Even so, it was a story that had me in tears and then laughing out loud. I kept turning the pages, unwilling to stop reading, wanting to plug along with Strayed to the end of her trail. She was a pleasant travel companion through terrain both familiar and unfamiliar to me.
It’s interesting how when I read books about these long treks, there’s always a part where I say, “Man. Maybe this isn’t something I want to do.” And it is somewhat discouraging to realize that even with the most careful preparation (which I intend to have), things will inevitably happen that muck up the plan. But by the end, I’m always ready again for the challenge, ready again to test myself in the world. At the end of this book in particular, I find myself aching for the beauty of the Sierra Nevada again.
And envious of her writers group. If I don’t want to feel jealous, I really shouldn’t read the acknowledgments.