“Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself.
The sky didn’t wonder where it was.”
—Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was first published in 2012. Not that long ago if we consider the history of the world; an eternity, however, when I think of my personal history. Six years ago I was oblivious to all kinds of nature-related feats, let alone interested in people writing about mountains and trails and snow. I even skipped long landscape descriptions in novels. I now believe that I always took it for granted, to have mountains around, wide extensions of grassland and oaks never too far off. It was not until I experienced both solo traveling and an unexpected encounter with the merciless of the natural world that I began wanting to read about it, to listen to what others more experienced in leading a nomadic existence had to say about a lifestyle that so began to fascinate me.
And so, I came across books that spoke of travels into the unknown, of personal tests of strength and newfound purpose in being alone in nature. I went to Thoreau and Emerson and Tolstoi and I couldn’t help but wonder how possible it is to get lost today, how many regions remain uncharted, are there any lands that haven’t been trekked in on camped on? I looked then, for contemporaries that had something to say about it, and I found among them, Cheryl Strayed’s account of her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The answer I found was that, well, perhaps there are not any places on earth that we can’t find on Google maps; perhaps, no matter where we are, we are never too far away from civilization, but that doesn’t really matter.
What first interested me in Strayed’s book was the honesty with which she stated her motives in hiking the PCT. I could not help but sympathize with an unprepared, delusional, female solo traveler. I found the book sincere when describing the things that usually lead to a trip, or an expedition as wild as this: “my life is falling apart”. Such sincerity would have seemed cliché were it not for the honesty with which the author addresses this search for meaning in nature and how she shatters this expectations dropping some truths like: nature is indifferent, there’s nothing glamorous in hiking and having your toenails fall off (yes, that still haunts me), and you’ll probably be too busy worrying about surviving that you won’t have time to ponder over your life. But your life and your choices and who you are will always come out when you’re stripped from your comfort zone and left alone with your courage. Every choice out there, whether to quit or to keep going, will be a step towards self-discovery, and the way in which this books portrays that, with humour and angst and anger, rang true to me.
Strayed tells the story of how, at 26, after her mother’s death and her divorce, she made the rash decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, underestimating both the preparation time most hikers take and the physical demands of hiking. She, however, kept to her word and hiked all the way from California to Oregon. Packing mistakes, snow, terrible heat, water scarcity, getting lost and finding creepy men along the way are only part of the obstacles Strayed came across during her journey. The other obstacles came from within and could be summed up in the word “fear”:
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.”
–Cheryl Strayed, Wild
An encounter with nature will always bring two kinds of battles: one against nature and one against oneself. They are both connected and it would suffice to take a look at some nature lovers like Emerson, Thoreau and Muir to understand that humanity’s struggles with nature are more than often struggles with its own self. Whoever has set out on a journey into the wild has always found some of the wilderness within. And Strayed’s account of her own experience states this encounter with her own uncharted regions of grief and joy with honesty and simplicity:
“Perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”
—Cheryl Strayed, Wild
While reading Wild I was traveling around the Caribbean, exploring beaches and cenotes in México and national parks and islands in Colombia. It was actually a very different landscape from the one I was reading about, and yet so many things sounded relatable to me: about both the discomfort and the freedom of traveling light, about feeling lonely and wanting to be alone, about having no time to think things over yet finding nonverbal, intangible answers to half-formulated questions. Perhaps that is why this book is so dear to me.
There are several moments of clarity in Strayed’s narrative, between thrilling anecdotes, sad memories and fun chapters. And all these moments of clarity lead to the final comprehension of belonging to the world. Not in a new age, life-coaching way, but in a simple, matter-of-fact realization that our lives, however peculiar in their past or uncertain in their futures, belong in the major course of things, as do the mountains and the rivers. This book was a reminder that wild things, both within and without, are not always meant to be tamed or even understood; it is enough to let them be and be with them.