I’ve picked up Cheryl Strayed‘s memoir about hiking across some one thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. On the surface, Wild is very much not a book for me: I shudder at the many ways Mother Nature [rightfully] insists herself, I take walks only under duress [like, when I can’t catch a trike, or when I need to cool off lest I inflict grievous harm on such-and-such] and with much bitching. And I have a distaste for memoirs in which people find themselves.
I got Wild very reluctantly because of the above, and half-afraid of undoing what wonder she instilled in me with Tiny, Beautiful Things. But Wild is by Cheryl Strayed—in many ways, Wild is how Strayed become Sugar of the expansive heart. Wild is, as importantly, about Strayed living in a sorrow-weighted world in the aftermath of her mother’s sudden death, her crumbled marriage, her as-crumbling life. This, then, is the Cheryl Strayed I am acquainted with. The push for a messy undoing of the knots human beings almost willfully wrap themselves in, that is the Cheryl Strayed that I knew—that is the Cheryl Strayed whose bright red book I carried around for weeks, going over the same flagged passages again and again, every time as in a chant.
And I started reading Wild yesterday in anticipation of future directionlessness: I will need to find myself, too, in one way or another. Or, at the very least: Form more firmly—in the coming weeks—a path toward what I am to become, whatever that may be. See, I have always just fallen into things; I wave off Big Decisions with a wildly thumping heart yet an airy, “I’ll figure it out.” And I usually do, because I have a staggering amount of self-preservation [to offset my denial of foresight]. And I picked up Wild to very laterally approach the very thought of having to think about the future. I’m not going to figure it out now, no. But I need a semblance of direction; I need to know where to start. And although none of these decisions will be spurred the same depth and breadth of sorrow that Strayed’s were, I can only approximate her fear for the future. Fear and, yes, occasional denial of.
It’s what I do, you see: I pick up books.
For Strayed, throughout the trail, thus far, it has been a continuous push-and-pull of two of the stronger voices in her head: One telling her to turn back, another telling her to keep moving forward. There is nothing particularly appealing in either direction. The symbolism is weighty. She returns home, or what shambles of it that she’s left behind, having failed at the task she set for herself—a task that she believes would in some measure put things to right in her rather bruised soul. Or she moves forward, inexperienced and inept, facing untold challenges, even for the moxie that has brought her so far. But once Strayed has entered week three of her hike along the PCT—following countless missteps, much aches and pains, buckets of self-doubt—she writes: “Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. that 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.“
I have stopped reading there for now, all too aware that there have only been snatches that I haven’t been eluded by this clarity. And that I’m hoping to land on a—pardon the too-apt pun—a clearing in the coming weeks. The clearest thing I know, right now, is that I am happy with the man I’ve been happy with for the past six years. Other things I am certain of: I love my mother, and my faith in the resilience of human beings lies strongest in her; I am tired all the time and waking up fills me with a dread over, an almost physical distaste of, a desire for the disavowal of the things I have to do for the rest of the day; I try to be a good person; it has become a heartache that I cannot dedicate my life to reading and writing, and properly feed myself and put a roof over my head at the same time; change is coming, because if there’s one absolute truth about what is to come, it’s that I will enact that change; Sundays, like today, are always among the worst of the days.
The deliberate hum in my mind where my reading self insists a moral on stories has only gotten louder upon reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir. It’s not a literal guidepost I’m looking for—I remain hysterical at the thought of taking a fucking hike just to find myself. I just want to witness someone I trust grapple with questions, I suppose? Not the same questions that I need to face myself, not at all—but, augh, how do I explain this, how to articulate that reading Strayed makes me feel less alone, a little less scared, a little at peace with the upheavals that are sure to come?
And, I suppose, there’s a curious, rather welcome thing in reading about the magnitude of what Strayed has gone through. It doesn’t make mine pale in comparison, as a shrill voice would bid me to put things into perspective. It just, well, it offers a nod at whatever I am supposed to go through, and makes all that uncertainty the tiniest bit less hard.
Strayed writes, miles and detours and long stretches of heat and sometimes-snow into the PCT: “I stopped in my tracks when that thought came into my mind, that hiking the PCT was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Immediately, I amended the thought. Watching my mother die and having to live without her, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Leaving Paul and destroying our marriage and life as I knew it for the simple and inexplicable reason that I felt I had to—that had been hard as well. But hiking the PCT was hard in a different way. In a way that made the other hardest things the tiniest bit less hard. It was strange but true. And perhaps I’d known it in some way from the very beginning. Perhaps the impulse to purchase the PCT guidebook months before had been a primal grab for a cure, for the thread of my life that had been severed.“
That deliberate hum has gotten louder—I refuse to find some hokey literal insight in Strayed’s life; this in some way demeans both her experience and the art she’s fashioned from it. But I will allow myself this: Maybe, just maybe, I picked up Strayed memoir–after months of giving it a wide berth, of picking it up and setting it back down again at the bookstore, of finally buying it only to set it aside in favor of more timely books—maybe I picked it up because I knew that, eventually, I would need a push.