I recently started reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I don’t typically follow popular reading trends: I am, for instance, the only person I know who hasn’t read any of the Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and/or Fifty Shades of Gray books. But when I saw Wild listed among the Boston Public Library’s digital media offerings, I placed a hold for a Kindle download. Given the chance to read a free e-copy of book everyone including Oprah has been talking about, I couldn’t say no.
I’ve read the first half of Strayed’s memoir about her solo backpacking trek on California’s Pacific Crest Trail, and so far I’m enjoying the journey. Although I’ve been on only two weekend backpacking trips over the course of my life, I’m realizing you don’t have to be a serious hiker to appreciate Strayed’s quest. Strayed is one year older than me, and while she was hiking the PCT in the mid-1990s, I was living at the Cambridge Zen Center and sitting occasional week- and month-long retreats at the Providence Zen Center. While Strayed was rebounding from the death of her mother, the end of her marriage, and an aimless interval using heroin and sleeping with strangers, I was married, teaching college composition, and plodding away at my doctorate.
Is there much of a difference between any of these grueling disciplines: backpacking for miles, sitting retreats, or withstanding the monotonies of marriage, work, and graduate school? Reading Strayed’s memoir, I’m finding countless points at which our distinctly different paths nevertheless parallel one another in profoundly significant ways. There’s a long tradition of books about travel in which a physical journey becomes a metaphor for spiritual soul-searching, and in all of them, the actual distance traveled isn’t as important as the commitment it takes to continue. Ultimately, the point of a long, grueling trip isn’t the destination but the discipline it takes to get there, and any daunting task you commit to day after exhausting day can teach a similar kind of dedication.
I used to teach a whole semester’s worth of books about travel, and Strayed’s memoir reminds me of one of the books I assigned: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Bryson and his buddy, Katz, set out to walk the Appalachian Trail even though they (like Strayed) are woefully unprepared. Although Bryson and Katz end up completing a mere fraction of the Appalachian Trail, Bryson gleans a book’s worth of insights and anecdotes from the experience, such as the realization that the whole point of hiking is to deprive yourself of simple comforts:
I was beginning to appreciate that the central feature of life on the Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things—processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation—fill you with wonder and gratitude. It is an intoxicating experience to taste Coca-Cola as if for the first time and to be conveyed to the very brink of orgasm by white bread. Makes all the discomfort worthwhile, if you ask me.
Bryson’s experience of the Appalachian Trail is so similar to my experience of sitting Zen retreats, I wonder if he sat a few alongside me, eavesdropping on my silent thoughts as I fantasized about pizza, potato chips, and chocolate bars. Sitting a retreat is a grueling experience: your legs ache, your mind wanders, and you wonder time and again why you agreed to do something as silly as sit in silence for days on end. What makes a silent retreat relaxing and renewing, however, is the simple withdrawal of life’s everyday comforts—an act of deprivation that leaves you clear-eyed and appreciative for what you do have. It’s a lesson that both Bryson and Strayed learned in their own separate ways.
Cheryl Strayed’s account of her hike also reminds me of the legendary Walking Woman in Mary Austin’s story of the same name. The Walking Woman doesn’t have a name; Austin’s narrator guesses the Walking Woman lost her name around the time she abandoned the notion of “lady-like” behavior. A name and Victorian gender conventions are burdensome things the Walking Woman jettisons as unessential, and when the gritty men she encounters along the way need to call her something, they use the term “Mrs. Walker”: a name denoting the respect you should show a married woman as well as the activity by which she defines herself.
Strayed also jettisons her previous name before setting out on her journey: or, more accurately, she replaces her name when divorcing her husband, exchanging the hyphenated name of her married years for a name that more accurately describes who she is and what she does. The name “Strayed” describes a person with a proclivity to wander, a “stray” being a creature without a set family or home. Like the Walking Woman, who set out to wander the desert southwest after the death of a loved one, Strayed finds her (literal) footing after her mother’s death by embarking on seemingly endless pedestrian task. The monotony of walking is one way to find one’s way, even if one’s “way” is wandering itself.
I had my own stint as a Walking Woman when I took a solo trip to California in the summer of 2003, the year before my divorce. I didn’t walk the Pacific Crest Trail, nor did I backpack, but I did spend a week sleeping at the San Francisco Zen Center while day-hiking the hills of Marin County. On that trip, I had no real plan or destination: each morning, I’d simply find a trailhead that looked promising, walk until my feet ached, then drive back to the Zen Center by dark, averaging about 10 miles a day, alone. I didn’t keep a journal on that trip–I was too busy walking to write–but I do have a list of the places and mileages I logged every day, and it reads like a litany of remembered landscapes: Tennessee Cove, Coastal Trail, Laguna Trail, Bear Valley Trail, Tomales Point Trail.
I didn’t have a predetermined itinerary for that California trek, just an unsettled heart that found comfort only when I walked. When I flew to California, I was bored and burned out, stalled with my graduate work and stumped when it came to knowing what else to do. When I flew home, nothing about my life had changed, but I felt different. Feeling stronger in body and more settled in mind, I was able to resume my work, focus on my studies, and commit to my writing in a way that hadn’t seemed possible before I left.
Perhaps because I can relate to it in this way, I’m enjoying Strayed’s book much more than I enjoyed that other best-selling narrative of a divorced woman on the rebound: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Strayed’s trek on the Pacific Crest Trail is more physically challenging than Gilbert’s junket to Italy, India, and Indonesia, and it therefore seems less indulgent and more worthwhile. Whereas I found myself envying Gilbert for her travels—few of us can afford the time or money it takes to spend several months traveling to exotic destinations—I find myself admiring Strayed for her stamina. Not everyone can devote a summer to a long backpacking trip: both Gilbert and Strayed are describing a privileged kind of pilgrimage. But Strayed pays for her story with the old-fashioned currency of blood, blisters, and sweat. Whereas I quickly lost patience with Gilbert’s book because of its painful self-absorption, Strayed’s emotional obsessions are quickly subsumed in the pure physical challenge of long-distance backpacking. Strayed doesn’t have the energy for solipsistic navel-gazing; she’s too busy breeding bruises, blisters, and backpack-sores.
Strayed learns very quickly that a spiritual journey is first and foremost a physical one. Strayed goes on this trip to grapple with the death of her mother and the end of her marriage: she is on a quest to find herself. But Strayed doesn’t find herself by thinking about herself: instead, the pure physical agonies of her trip quickly strip her of any sense of ego.
I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind.
Strayed comes to terms with her emotional demons because she learns that outliving a mother then a marriage isn’t the end of life’s travails: instead, troubles like mountain crests keep on coming, and you learn to surmount them, one by one. Sometimes the way to heal yourself isn’t through indulgence but through wholehearted immersion into the reality of this painful, backbreaking world.
One of the things I learned when sitting long retreats was that you’re stronger than you think. Strayed learns something similar from her experience on the Pacific Crest trail, lulling herself to sleep in the early, most backbreaking days of her hike with a mantra-like call and response, asking the question “Who is tougher than me” and answering “No one!” Whether you’re a hiker or not–whether you’ve backpacked the Pacific Crest Trail or walked no further than the end of your block–at some point in your life you’ve faced some metaphorical equivalent of Strayed’s Pacific Crest Trail, something you thought would break you, both body and soul. One lesson anyone can take from Strayed’s book is that these challenges needn’t defeat us. We can do more than we’d ever imagined if we just keep walking, refusing to give up and taking each obstacle as it comes, one step at a time.