I picked up Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” precisely because she does the exact opposite of what I would do if I was having a tough time: she takes a hike. No, literally she hikes the Pacific Crest trail. God, I wouldn’t do it voluntarily much less when I’m trying to sort through some issues. But this was Strayed’s path to reemerging from her destructive engagements with drugs and toxic relationships. After losing her mother suddenly to cancer and having her personal life fall apart, those tactics of heroin and meaningless sex were an attempt to numb the pain. “Wild” is how she found her way back.
There has been so much praise and press over this work but I was reluctant to commit to reading it. Perhaps it’s because she takes on a task that is both daunting and completely unappealing to me. Sometimes I don’t post certain images onto my Tumblr account because even though they’re pretty I know that I wouldn’t actually enjoy it. You know those really grey pictures with cliffs and the ocean? I know that in real life I would want to look at it for a total of 2 minutes, be cold and want to get back into the car to drive back to the inn. If I needed the space to regroup I would either overcommit to work or be somewhere warm and uncomplicated. In both scenarios I would be comfortable. Even after forcing myself to give the book a shot there were sections where my eyes glazed over. Really, it’s meaningless to me what material her sleeping bag is made of or what type of purifying salts she used. But then as her story progressed I completely understood why she was providing her detailed shopping list. She took on such a goal to return to the very basics. Her life had become so full of distractions she needed to only focus on survival and keeping herself alive. And those very material goods were what kept her from falling off an edge and disappearing for good. By saving herself numerous times she was ashamed of her reckless behaviour previously. She begins to respect her body again.
The hike itself is a metaphor for her personal journey and the plot twists make you wonder how it will all end. In grade 11 we had to fit the life a famous person into the hero’s journey. The whole purpose of this exercise was to teach you the elements of this type of narrative to incorporate into your own original work. But tropes become that way for a reason: we all like to think that we are on a hero’s journey, that we will triumph in the end. The pattern was pretty straightforward: there’s the beginning and childhood that’s fairly uneventful, a calling or talent that brings fame and notoriety, happiness, a setback and then the triumph. I chose Billie Holliday and it was really difficult to fit her life into this design because she had had so many problems, the resolutions were not definite victories and her last few years weren’t exactly a triumph. Then again, her art is her triumph and that will always remain right? But still, this assignment taught me more about the ambiguities in life rather than how to write a good story.
Many of us hope for a long and happy life where at the end there will be a lot clarity. Perhaps in our last years we’ll have so much time to reflect on how our life resembled the hero’s journey. We’ll also be at the life stage where we’re more forgiving of ourselves and can rebrand mistakes as simply tests along the way. Even if tragedy strikes and you don’t get this type of ending, those who loved you most will see your story in this way. They will remember all of the good. But if we all took on the attitude that it all gets sorted in the end would we have taken more chances along the way to live a bigger or grander life? Perhaps we would chase after more of those dreams. Maybe we wouldn’t give up so easily. And that’s the best part of Cheryl Strayed’s story, she has the skill to use words and phrases to properly butcher people’s hearts. She is raw, honest and forthcoming of all the ways she diverged and digressed. But the best thing she teaches us is to keep on walking. That we all end up somewhere.