by Cheryl Strayed
315 p, Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95
Cheryl Strayed’s calamitous memoir of her 1,180 mile journey along the spectacular and harrowing Pacific Crest Trail can only be described as life-changing. Shifting between her tumultuous past and agonizing present, I found myself shifting as well from astonished to uplifted and back again, riveted by her monumental naiveté and an unforgettable drive to go somewhere. Somewhere different. Anywhere. Just not where she had already been, Hell.
Haunted by the death of her mother, full of guilt for the destruction of her marriage and then her subsequent spiral into drugs, Cheryl realized that she had to get out of the daily traps keeping her from moving forward in to a life of purpose and meaning. At 26, she stepped on to the Pacific Crest Trail in a dusty Mojave Desert town in Southern California, in search of answers. Then, the realization hit her, like an avalanche; she had absolutely no idea what she had gotten herself into. Not an avid hiker by any sense of the word, she quickly learned the PCT was serious business and being ill-prepared would not just cost her a few toenails, but could potentially be the death of her. Luckily, it wasn’t a death as much as it was her rebirth.
Through her vibrant and spirited words, I could hear the crunch of the leaves under her ill-fitting boots. I could smell the musky pine trees, see the creek as it meandered through the forest, feel her agony and fully grasp the depth of her grief. Her ability to describe stillness, quiet and seemingly inane moments, allowed me to sit with her in meditation, to ponder along with her my own deepest innermost thoughts. “I gazed out over the darkening land. There were so many amazing things in this world. They opened up inside me like a river. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next minute I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full.”
The unnecessarily heavy load she carried with her on her journey was a brilliant metaphor for the needless, deafening load of criticism, self doubt and misery she had been carrying for years. As if the physical load wasn’t enough, the behemoth backpack began wearing through her clothes, cutting into her skin, causing gaping open wounds that poetically lead straight to her soul. Bound by bloody bandages, she continued, begrudgingly forced to care for her self-inflicted wounds, finally conceding that they must heal and in turn, so must she.