Feature

Book of the week: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Strayed is a first-rate writer whose memoir about her cathartic journey on the Pacific Coast Trail is “awe-inspiring.”

(Knopf, $26)

“Move over, Elizabeth Gilbert,” said Karen R. Long in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Your girly, self-involved Eat, Pray, Love has a tougher, more feral sibling.” Cheryl Strayed survived a tough Minnesota childhood only to face a pair of personal calamities in her 20s. Her mother, who raised her and her brother alone, died suddenly of cancer at 45. Then Strayed’s marriage crumbled. Working dead-end waitressing jobs and dabbling with heroin, Strayed was self-destructing when she devised an unlikely potential cure: Though she’d never hiked before, she would undertake a 1,100-mile solo trek on the Pacific Coast Trail from California’s Mojave Desert to the Washington/Oregon border. It was a reckless plan, but Strayed is a “reckless, gritty, infuriating girl.” She’s also a first-rate writer, recounting her cathartic journey in sentences that “hum with energy.”

Talk about a trail of tears, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. When Strayed begins her journey, she is lugging a lot of pain, plus an overstuffed backpack she nicknames Monster. There are harrowing moments: frightening brushes with moose and bears; another with a leering hunter who eyes her like prey. Her ill-fitting boots torture her feet—until one boot falls over a cliff. Yet when Strayed finally adapts to the solitude she’s been seeking, the stakes only grow higher. I don’t often cry while reading, but Strayed’s encounters with her dark memories and grief reduced me to “puddle-eyed cretinism.” Still, this isn’t some weepy memoir. “This book is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song.”

Something about the voice of this pseudonymous author just makes her “someone you want to listen to,” said Melanie Rehak in Slate.com. Whether she’s describing her emotional breakdowns, the sun and the trees, encounters with fellow travelers, or an unquenchable longing for a Snapple, she does so with such winsome clarity that you can’t help but give full attention. By the time she reaches her physical destination, a steel-truss bridge known as the “Bridge of the Gods,” she’s tracked down “a great unspoken truth about adulthood”—that we’re obliged to persist in the face of all tragedies. As “awe-inspiring” as her journey is, the most remarkable feature of this book is Strayed’s “unflinching honesty,” said Michael Straub in NPR.org. It’s also what makes Wild “one of the most original, heartbreaking, and beautiful American memoirs to come along in years.”

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