Going it alone: Cheryl Strayed sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in search of the woman she wants to be.
The divorce papers the author fills out (after her heroin use and several affairs have ended her marriage) contain a blank line where she is instructed to write what will become her new name. After much deliberation, she chooses the last name Strayed, which serves as a reminder of her past transgressions and as a symbol of her freedom to put her life on a new path: "I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild."
A long-distance hike through the wilds of the West is a perfect metaphor for someone seeking to draw a new line from past to future, and it's with such self-awareness that Cheryl Strayed sets out in 1995 -- with woeful preparation -- to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the California-Oregon border. The journey's purpose is to correct the trajectory of her life and lead her to a better version of herself. The reader senses the natural memoirist in Strayed in the very workings of her trip: It's with a writer's impulse toward narrative that she gives her hike such significance before its inception. While the other hikers we encounter are nature lovers, experienced backpackers and lifelong hikers, only Strayed is amid such an explicitly existential crisis.
True to this aim, her memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," mixes the ups and downs of the trail with those of Strayed's past. Flashbacks to her childhood in northern Minnesota, to the collapse of her marriage, and, most of all, to her mother's death and the subsequent dissolution of her family, give us a troubled and complex figure whose lostness is palpable.
These ruminations can become self-pitying; fortunately, the demands of the trail continually draw Strayed the narrator out of herself, just as they do for Strayed the hiker: "I'd set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering."
The suffering includes carrying a way-too-heavy backpack, developing "tree-bark-plucked-dead-chicken flesh" from the pack rubbing on her hips, running out of money and water, getting lost, and, most serious -- "My feet? Well, they were entirely, unspeakably [wrecked]." And that's before she loses her boots.
When record snowfall in the Sierra Nevada forces her to change plans and skip ahead on the trail, Strayed elects to make up the miles by moving her destination to the Bridge of the Gods, which crosses the Columbia River to link Oregon and Washington. Hiking the Oregon section of the trail is appropriate, as Portland is where she plans to live once she's off the trail.
Though Strayed's plan for re- creating herself is highly determined, the execution is so haphazard and improvisational that she is led to some truly unexpected moments that are worthy of the psychological burden she's put on them. It's a fearless story, told in honest prose that is wildly lyrical as often as it is dirtily physical.
Scott F. Parker is author of the memoir "Running After Prefontaine" and co-editor of "Coffee: Grounds for Debate." He lives in Minneapolis.