Since human civilization began, people have ventured into the wild to challenge themselves, whether to confront inner demons, prove a point to the world or simply, as George Mallory said of his attempt on Mt. Everest, "because it's there." There are countless stories of such adventures, many of them dreary documentaries of endless days of monotony and routine.
Occasionally, however, a book comes along that makes the day-to-day trials and tribulations seem worthy of note, even a chuckle or two. "Wild," by Cheryl Strayed, is one such narrative. Self-deprecating and humorous, this Oprah Book Club pick has taken the armchair adventurer world by storm.
What Bill Bryson's travel narrative, "A Walk in the Woods," did for the Appalachian Trail, Strayed's blow-by-blow account does for the longer and higher Pacific Crest Trail. Sitting at home, one can feel the heat, hear rattlesnakes threatening, experience the dirt and grime of weeks on the trail and soak up the joys of that unique solitude found only in nature.
What leads this young woman to the 2,663-mile-long trail in the first place is part of the story's appeal. While barely in her 20s, Strayed must come to terms with her mother's terminal cancer and subsequent death. Blindsided by the suddenness of her grief, and unable to cope with the tragic loss of her anchor and the crumbling of her family, the author's world spirals into a tailspin as heavy drugs and promiscuities take hold and her short marriage dissolves.
Living dangerously comes in many forms, and Strayed takes the prize for sheer audacity and variety. Her story achieves the height of contrasts - from shooting up heroin with her latest fling, to setting off, alone and ill prepared, on an extreme athletic endeavor. Strayed (not her real name, but an aptly suited and prophetic one chosen after her divorce) is a fascinating narrator, as she clearly identifies and calls out her many demons - not an easy feat for most people.
Through journal-style descriptions, the allure of "Wild" comes primarily from Strayed's competent writing, which flows up hill and over dale as the landscape unfolds beneath her weary feet. Characters met along the journey take on distinct personalities, and the Pacific Crest Trail itself becomes the most developed of all the characters, cradling the author's every step as she sheds her tattered skin and matures with every painful mile logged.
Learning lessons both mundane and profound, Strayed manages to complete her task, healing her damaged soul in the process. In "Wild," the author reveals how nature forces a person to confront priorities, peeling away the layers of remorse, pride, convention and foolishness.
The "why" of it has to do with how it felt to be in the wild, as Strayed wrote: "With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt this way to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way."
Through humor, honesty and a well-written narrative, Strayed is an endearing guide through her personal journey of discovery, made all the more enticing because it reflects life's pilgrimage as Henry David Thoreau described it: "Not until we are lost, do we begin to understand ourselves."
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