Last fall I spent three days biking alone through Oregon’s Willamette valley. I road through a day of heavy heat sandwiched between two days of torrential rain carrying little but my camp gear on my bike. Leading up to the trip I had spent a few months researching the route, picking out gear, and even took a test-ride in the Bay Area with a friend to safely get a feel for what it was like to ride with a fully loaded bike. My trip was actually far less ambitious than I had originally planned because I had to cut the trip short due to the wet weather.
Despite the shortened route, that trip remains up there as one my most memorable and rewarding experiences. Prior to my solitary bike trip I have enjoyed numerous multi-day biking, backpacking, and river rafting trips through beautiful and scenic wilderness and backcountry roads. Although each of those trips has given me great joy and lasting memories, those prior trips were all group expeditions comforted by the support of reliable friends. My Willamette trip was special because it was a solitary trip, led by, organized, and completed completely by my own design and determination. On the final day of that brief trip I road 65 miles through a ceaseless down-pore that wore down my spirit. Half way through that day and far beyond any point of return I thought myself crazy for ever embarking on such a wet and wearying ride. Beyond my self-doubts I wouldn’t give up. At the end of that long and draining day I was rewarded with the pure bliss of knowing that I had made it. I had made it on my own and purely for myself.
I speak about this trip in opening my review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to provide some context towards my deep respect for Cheryl’s accomplishment. I had biked nearly 160 miles in three days and although I had carried my breakfast and dinner and all my camp gear on my bike, I had the luxury to fill my water at parks and gas stations, the luxury of stopping for lunch, the luxury of using my GPS phone for guidance, the luxury to call or email my wife at the end of my long days or during my rest breaks. Cheryl had no such luxury as she backpacked nearly 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on her own relying on her compass and the trail and the infrequent kindness of strangers she stumbled upon from week to week. Though my ride was solitary and powered by my own energies, it was along a paved road and if I ever ran into trouble I didn’t have too long to wait before a car would pass me by. Cheryl’s hike was truly solitary with several days passing before anyone crossed her path and she ran the risk of dehydration since safe watering holes could be as far as 35 miles down the trail. Although her original plan was sidelined by snow, as mine by rain, she persevered and continued on, making her way to the Washington border from the Mohave desert while rediscovering herself in the depths of wilderness.
Despite my respect for her journey, despite my acknowledgment that her book is an accomplishment in itself, I haven’t been so annoyed at a book in as long as I can remember. From the opening prologue that depicted Cheryl losing one of her hiking boots at the edge of a cliff and then throwing the other I knew I was in for a raucous ride.
Much can be said about Cheryl’s ridiculous unpreparedness, how she never even packed her bag for a test run before her first day on the trail, how she assumed hiking was simply walking and therefore she didn’t practice her strength or endurance training, how she packed the wrong fuel for her stove, and how she clogged her water filter. These foolish actions are forgiven due to her youth and naiveté. Much can be said how she spent the months prior to her hike dabbling in heroin, completely distracting herself from a practical approach towards long distance preparation. This can also be forgiven since the purpose of her hike was prompted by her realization that her life choices had drifted her far from her roots. What can’t be forgiven is her ceaseless self degradation and whining about her life. Yes, I understand that her story has purpose, she did have a challenging and unique upbringing and her mother’s sudden and unexpected death impacted her greatly, but in reading about it, I wanted her to move on beyond her personal history and tell me more about the PCT and how its beauty impacted her. She did this on several occasions, but too often she turned back to herself with such navel gazing proclamations as the following:
“You should see a therapist, everyone had told me after my mother had died, and ultimately – in the depths of my darkest moments the year before the hike – I had. But I didn’t keep the faith… I had problems a therapist couldn’t solve; grief that no man in a room could ameliorate.” (134)
I will say that Cheryl writes well, her style is engaging and despite my annoyance with her story, I finished the book: but that endeavor felt like an accomplishment in itself. This book should have been about 100 pages shorter to make it a fantastic book, but too often it returned to Cheryl’s self-analysis and felt more like a written therapy session than an adventure in the wild. I guess what distracted me was that I enjoy stories that have a universal quality to them, but Wild fails to reach out with a universal voice. Strayed speaks from her singular personhood, often repeating her regrets towards her adulterous behavior that ruined her marriage, her self destructive use of heroin, and her recurrent sorrow for her mother’s loss. I have no problems with anyone dealing with personal struggle and writing about it, but what fazed me by Wild was its complete lack of applicability to the human story. Even when Cheryl appears to move on and reach new achievements, she strays off the trail with a boy she just met to enjoy a few nights of relaxation and pleasure on the Oregon coast, hundreds of miles from the PCT.
Cheryl’s achievement as a young woman on her own is without a doubt an accomplishment, but after reading her story, I was disappointed in the book, because it felt less about being wild and more about being tamed by the trail in the wilderness. I wish that the book was filled more with the passages such as the following and less with the navel-gazing self analysis that so frequently annoyed and frustrated this reader:
“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. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.” (234)