How long is the journey to happiness? For author Cheryl Strayed, it was 1,100 miles.Five days into her 1,100-mile, three-month solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed was charged by a Texas longhorn bull. She jumped off the trail into a patch of scrub oaks and pulled herself up to safety. Not knowing which direction the bull had run (Strayed had closed her eyes), she weighed her options. Should she turn around and go home, or should she continue? “I could only choose between the bull that would take me back and the bull that would take me forward,” she writes in her spectacular memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf, $26). “And so I walked on.”
Strayed’s tome is full of scenes such as this — moments where she chooses to walk on despite the pain, the thirst, the fallen tree blocking her path. And layered between tales of the trail are painful yet beautiful remembrances of the experiences that led her there: the heart-wrenching days spent at her dying mother’s bedside; the sadness and guilt she carried about her subsequent unraveling, which led to a divorce; and the attempts she made to escape these emotions through drugs, alcohol and men. It was in the midst of this grief and swirling heartbreak that she casually picked up a book about the trail in the checkout line at a sporting-?goods store. As she recalls, the photograph of “a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face.” This was the sign she needed; hiking the trail would bring her strength as she fought her way back to the person she once had been.
About three-quarters into her journey, Strayed arrived at Oregon’s Crater Lake, which was formed by a powerful volcanic eruption more than 7,000 years ago. The experience, perhaps more than any other, proved to be eye-opening. “This was once an empty bowl that took ?hundreds of years to fill,” she writes. “But hard as I tried, I couldn’t see [it] in my mind’s eye. Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl. They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and the silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.”
Though it’s easy to get lost among the cacophony of voices competing for attention in today’s memoir market, Wild rises above the clatter. Strayed is a brilliant storyteller with an extraordinary gift not only for language but also for sharing the wisdom she earned with each and every step.