I got in a grocery checkout-line convo with a guy who said he wanted to move to Portland. I recommended he read Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, by Cheryl Strayed, that I’d liked it and Oregon played a big part in it. He said he would. The cashier asked him, “Are you really going to read it?” He said, yeah, his girlfriend was reading it and he was going to read it when she was done. The cashier thought this was weird, that I’d recommend a book his girlfriend happened to be reading. We tried to explain why it wasn’t. It’s really popular, said the guy. Harry Potter popular. No, I said, because the cashier looked skeptical again, it’s Eat-Pray-Love popular. She seemed satisfied by this, asked me if I wanted my receipt, and we all moved out into our day.
Wild was beginning to get Eat-Pray-Love popular even before Oprah picked it to jump-start her book club. After getting the big O on the cover, well, bestseller-dom was kind of a done deal.
In the mid-90’s, Cheryl was in the midst of a divorce from a nice guy, dating another guy who’d introduced her to heroin, and still grieving her mother, who’d died a few years before. Standing in line at REI, she saw a travel guide about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, and then decided that was a good way to start over. She systematically started planning the trip, sold her then-belongings for hiking gear, packed herself boxes of gear and money to meet her along the way, and went to California to hike up to Washington state.
Wild is her memoir of hiking the trail, but also of the messed up things that happened beforehand that drove her to thinking it would be a good idea. She found out quickly it wasn’t. Twenty-something Cheryl is an often exasperating narrator, especially in her flashbacks to life prior to the hike. It’s easy to see why she wanted to run away. But it’s hard not to be engaged by her travelogue, one that includes snakes, bears and torturous boots.
Modern-day Cheryl writes like a very balanced, serene person, intriguing to me since she says she didn’t have traditional experiences with therapy. She even has a gig as an advice columnist at The Rumpus; a collection of those columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, was recently published. For those of you who were exasperated by Eat Pray Love (which I have a theory about*), this is probably not your thing–immature narrator trying to find herself. Unlike that book, though, this doesn’t have a girl meets boy happy ending. It ends with girl confronting self and coming out the wiser for it having endured agony, both in life and on the trail. If that sounds fun, or if, like me, you like to read about adventures without actually going outdoors, then this is a page-turning read.
*My theory about Eat Pray Love is that those who dislike it never went through a gruesome breakup. Non-statistically accurate testing has so far proved this true.