It was so relentlessly awful that my mother had been taken from me. I couldn’t even hate her properly. I didn’t get to grow up and pull away from her and bitch about her with my friends and confront her about the things I wished she’d done differently and then get older and understand that she had done the best she could and realize that what she had done was pretty damn good and take her fully back into my arms again. Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off.
I knew Cheryl Strayed had a tough life from reading Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns, but that was merely a glimpse into the pain she suffered from the moment she arrived on this planet. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail details how Cheryl went from a terrified toddler watching her father repeatedly beat her mother to a bloody pulp, to a married 19-year-old and caretaker of a broken family, to a heroin addict and, finally, to a solo female hiker on one of the most dangerous trails in the country.
Cheryl’s mother died from a quick but difficult — as if there is any other kind — battle with lung cancer during her last semester at college. (Actually, it was both of their last semesters; her mom was finally finishing her degree and they even shared a class together). After her mother’s death, Cheryl lost touch with her stepfather, whom she’d considered more of a father than her real one, and two siblings, as well as her husband and herself. She developed an addiction to heroin and had lots of sex with men who were not her husband, which led to her getting a divorce at the ripe old age of 26. Luckily Cheryl was self-aware enough to realize she was going nowhere fast, and in order to set herself straight she had to make a major change. So, based on a book she saw in passing one time, she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon. Alone. Going on a long hike may not sound like a big deal now but back in the mid-90s — pre-smartphones, pre-social media, pre-a lot of other technology — a 26-year-old woman hiking one of the most dangerous trails in the country by herself was quite a feat. I for one am mighty impressed by this woman.
The trail was, not surprisingly, extremely hard on Cheryl’s mind and body. She was ill-prepared with a too-heavy backpack, too-small boots and not enough money or supplies to get through the colder/snowier parts of the trail. Luckily (again) for Cheryl, she came across quite a cast of characters on the trail who helped her in a variety of ways — physically lightening her load, directing her around more troublesome areas of the trail, spotting her cash for meals and supplies when they reached areas of civilization. I don’t think she would have been able to complete the trail without them, to be quite honest, a sentiment I’m sure Cheryl agrees with.
What I found interesting, besides the physical aspects of the trail, was how Cheryl kept reprimanding herself for not doing what she originally set out to do on the trip, which was soul search and figure out her life, because she had to concentrate so hard on the physical challenges of the trail. Like, she had to keep reminding herself to be sad about her mother’s death and losing touch with the rest of her family and becoming addicted to heroin and ruining her marriage, but without her realizing it the trail was allowing her to manifest all of these emotional obstacles into physical ones, all of which she overcame beautifully. And it’s okay that she had help doing it, because we all need help. We can’t do it, or we can’t do all of it, alone, and that’s something many people, myself included, struggle with.
So at the end of the trip, eating an ice cream cone near a famous bridge in Oregon, was Cheryl “cured”? “Fixed”? Well, she was already divorced, and she stayed divorced. She kicked the heroin habit. She intended to make more of an effort with her siblings, but probably not her stepfather. She went right on missing her mother and hating that she died, but she accepted that was the way it was going to be for the rest of her life. And she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon, alone (mostly).