Strayed appears to be a deeply self-destructive person who thrives when faced with extreme choices. She alludes to a dangerous sexual life, admits to seriously flirting with heroin, and in this book, chose the extreme method of walking the Pacific Coast Trail to kick herself out of deep grief over her mother’s death. Wild documents the three month walk from Tehachapi Pass, California to Bridge of the Gods on the border of Oregon and Washington; a walk she threw herself into with only amateur preparation and understanding of long distance walking.
The book weaves through Strayed’s memories from the distance of her thirties when she was twenty-six. More than once she states her grief is for her mother’s death, but that includes her scattered family, an admittedly self-induced destruction of her marriage, and the always present emotional coming of age that death to a loved one so relentlessly presents. There are hardships of the trail like her “companion” backpack that chafes her skin and she names “Monster,” shoes that are too small, ice and snow to travel across, time with fellow walkers, and finally, Thoreau-like stretches of walking alone with her thoughts. All that and a little sex, too. It’s well-written and illuminating for people who enjoy female memoirs.
My empathy was with her sorrow when she asked the usual question from losing her mother of how “she will live and flourish without her.” She recites her broken, angry efforts to deal with grief and a few pages later she explains how she cannot sleep under the stars because she realizes the tent was “shielding me from the entire rest of the world.” The hiking boots that are too small, resulting in blisters and lost toenails, and the overpacked “Monster” that becomes legendary among other walkers, are metaphors for her constricted, suffering spirit and heavy, emotional load.
I do think this is a genuine look at a sincere woman’s struggle, and though my usually nurturing book club did too, they had a few comments: During parts of the book it felt like the frugal Eat, Pray, Love. She was such an idiot in preparing for the trek I had a hard time relating to her. (Keep in mind here we live in Utah where novice solitary walkers turn up dead.) If the relationship with her mother was as good as she said why did it seem so much of what she brought up was negative? Her father and step-father were so absent they were present.
She walks a griever’s hero’s journey along the trail that is good reading and a study in grief work. She recognizes her apotheosis by first saying it to a startled deer. “You’re safe in this world.” Though I know neither the deer nor Strayed is truly safe in the world, I understand the healing power after loss that simple sentence can give. It can allow fear to slowly leak away and make room for realizations and confronting “the unknowable mystery of why things happen.”