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Cheryl Strayed talks about "Wild"

Cheryl Strayed walked 1,100 miles by herself in the California and Oregon wilderness. It was a crazy, reckless, fantastic thing to do.

By / March 26, 2012

"I was always curious about the underneath things," says Cheryl Strayed about the impulse that drove her to walk 1,100 miles alone in the wilderness. "When I decided to hike [the Pacific Crest Trail] I was very literally seeking a different way of being in the world."

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When her mother died, Cheryl Strayed was cast into an abyss. To pull herself out of it, she tried sex, drugs, and long-distance hiking – although not simultaneously. She put drug use and empty relationships behind her (although just barely) before she set off on a solitary 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

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That's not to say that Strayed was well prepared for what she was undertaking. She had never backpacked before and spent the night before she left pulling brand-new outdoors equipment out of its packaging.

Yet despite all the odds, Strayed's journey was at least as transcendent as it was turbulent. She faced down hunger, thirst, injury, fatigue, boredom, loss, bad weather, and wild animals. Yet she also reached new levels of joy, accomplishment, courage, peace, and found extraordinary companionship.

I recently had a chance to talk with Strayed about her trip and her new book Wild. Here are excerpts of our conversation:

One of the last things your mother said to you was, “You’re a seeker.” What were you seeking and did you find it on the trail?

I think what she really meant by that – and I think this has been true throughout my life – is that I’ve always been somebody who asked a lot of questions and I think that was what made me a writer. I was always curious about other people’s lives and wanted to know why they did certain things. Even as a child I would say things like, “Why did you fall in love with your wife?” So I was always curious about the underneath things. When I decided to hike the trail I was very literally seeking a different way of being in the world. I was having such a difficult time [due to] grief over my mother. And so I think that I knew that I needed to go somewhere that was like home and the wilderness was that.

What was the best gift the trail gave you?
 
 The greatest gift was a sense of my own resilience. By that I mean something deeper than what confidence is. When we feel confident I think that a lot of times we think that that means that we’re going to be able to succeed at something and dominate something and master something. You know, it’s all those kind of winning and on-top things. The kind of confidence that I got on the PCT was more like, "Whatever it is that happens I’ll be OK." To carry everything that I needed on my back ... to say “Here’s what I actually need to survive” and it’s stuff that I can carry on my back. That’s really powerful. And to do it while carrying it over this difficult terrain and in difficult weather. It just gave me this sense of my own strength and resilience.

What was your worst moment?

There were times all along the way when the physical  circumstances would meet the negative thought patterns. I would just get so angry at myself. I would say why do I have to be out here? You know, think of all the other things a 26-year-old woman could be doing right now. And I’m just out there in the wilderness and so when it would be really searingly hot and my feet would be absolutely killing me I would be hungry and just thinking about all the things I did not have. I would  get into one of those negative thought patterns and that was so hard. I just wanted off.

You mailed yourself some wonderful books that you could collect at way stations along the way. What did the books contribute to your trip?

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