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.
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?
They very important to me. They were my entertainment. Remember, this is 1995. Now people take their iPods, their MP3 players, podcasts of radio shows. They’re listening to books on tape, audio books, and music. They have a different relationship to silence than I did. Every chance I got, every time I’d be sitting down having a snack or a break or having a meal at night, I’d be reading those books. I felt that, the way we get lost in a book in regular life was just amplified and magnified by about 1,000 when the only world that you can lose yourself in is that book.
You tell some amazing stories about “trail magic” – the kindnesses that seemed to be showered on you out there. Was that because you are a woman and were traveling alone?
I think I would have encountered trail magic [anyway], I think that everyone does. But I think that you get a lot more trail magic when you’re a woman alone. The flip side of being seen as weak is that nobody’s threatened by a woman alone. So people open themselves up to you. Also they saw me as vulnerable so they wanted to help me. It was very interesting to experience this endless kindness. When people understand that you are on this wilderness journey, people are so excited about that. Even people who would never want to do it themselves. They kind of want to live it vicariously through you. Any long-distance hiker ends up being a little bit like a celebrity.
Were you underprepared for the experience?
In a lot of ways I was prepared. I spent months preparing, organizing my boxes, and doing all the planning and stuff. The part that I was really unprepared for was the part about what it was like to really be out on the trail. I certainly could have been way better prepared. For example I could have gone backpacking before. Or tested the equipment. There are all kinds of rules I broke. On the other hand, and others who have hiked long distance will agree with this, there is only a certain amount you can do to be prepared. You can’t replicate hiking for a long, long time unless you hike for a long, long time.
Who would you be if you hadn't taken this trip?
I think that if I hadn’t hiked the PCT, I would have found myself out of that sorrow in some other fashion. Maybe the PCT was the hardest and fastest way to sort of shake myself back into the life that I needed to live, so it sort of sped that process along because it was so intense.
You're sure to have wanna-be Imitators who will consider hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. What advice would you give them?
The book’s only been out a day, and already I’ve received a few e-mails from people saying, "I’m going to this. I’m going to do what you did." And it’s funny to me because, on the one hand, that’s wonderful. Because, aside from having kids and marrying my husband, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is the best thing that I’ve ever done. Absolutely no question. I would do it again in a heartbeat. And I also would recommend to anyone else to do it. But it’s also true that everyone has to find their own journey, their own path, and I don’t know that they necessarily need to follow mine so literally. There are all kinds of journeys that we can go on. And they don’t necessarily even involve leaving your city.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.