I am not usually one to “review” something. Anything.
If anything, in all my years, I only thought I’d ever further expound upon my love of film.
But I have fallen in love over the last month. With a book. A book called “Wild.”
Because my knowledge of the going’s on within pop culture are limited these days, I am remiss to admit that I only heard about the book, “Wild”, because it had been adapted into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. The film was receiving tons of buzz as the days headed into autumn and what is primarily known in Hollywood as awards season.
Films that are seemingly great candidates for awards are released succinctly, one right after the other, in the hopes to garner industry praise and golden glory from the copious amounts of end-of-the year awards that are handed out. I made a mental note in the back of my mind that perhaps this would be a story I would appreciate reading before watching the actual film.
Indeed the trailer comes across a bit more like the stories of self discovery and redemption that we have seen and read before. Though this may not be a fair assumption for a book this nuanced as it is a tricky endeavor to not only adapt it to the big screen, but also to draft a trailer that stands out amongst its peers and predecessors as a story all its own.
In other words: we should give it a shot.
I was browsing the shelves at Target prior to the Christmas holiday and finally saw the book itself. The cover was plain white, the word “wild” strung across the top, over a pair of worn, rugged hiking boots. Nothing fancy.
Yet the back of the book was covered with words of praise for Cheryl Strayed’s memoir. I was puzzled, though – the book was but a mere 300 pages. I always pictured memoirs to be hundreds and hundreds of pages, or at least that was my limited assumption. It takes millions of words and almost as many pages to encapsulate a life fully.
But 300 pages certainly didn’t seem like much to ask.
I read the first handful of sentences, her first pages hanging on a story about those very boots we see on the cover. I took a picture of the cover and sent it to my husband. Hint hint. Smiley Face.
I was excited when I received it for Christmas – see? hinting DOES work. I started it the week before New Years and have been on a journey ever since.
Cheryl writes her story, her life story. She grew up in Minnesota, poor, with her two siblings and their loving mother. Her mother left her abusive father when she was very young and worked a string of odd jobs, moving from place to place, trying to make ends meet.
Her mother was somewhat of a free spirit, and yet the anchor that held their family together. Her relentless optimism and idealism befuddle a young Cheryl, but none the less, she and her mother share a loving and deeply moving relationship.
Eventually, her mother remarried and she, her new husband and the children moved out to their own expanse of property in the Minnesota countryside, living in a house that they built for themselves. It had no bathroom, only a honey bucket for their toilet. There they traipsed barefoot through the land, living without many modern luxuries of the time.
Their mother tended to their garden, making the children assist her in their endeavors. They grew and canned their own food. They ate off of the land. Cheryl was a popular girl at school, being careful not to reveal her wit and intelligence in the hopes that no one would realize that she and her family were dirt poor.
When Cheryl is college aged her mother suddenly turns ill. She is dying. Her siblings scatter out of angst and fear, while Cheryl is left trying to pick up the pieces and hold them together while she watches her mother drag on and suffer until the bitter end.
Cheryl is severed in two. More than that, Cheryl is shattered to pieces. Pieces that she can’t pick up again, shards shooting off into too many directions to count.
She is lost.
And from there she is hurdled headlong into her grief. Into the hole that is in her heart, a hole she cannot fill. She wanders, traveling from place to place, but finding no home, no comfort. Her family was blown to shreds by her mother’s death, they all barely keep in touch and barely know one another anymore.
At the time of her mother’s death, Cheryl is married. But deviant, distant behavior and multiple affairs puncture holes in her already fragile relationship.
It isn’t just her questionable behavior that dooms her marriage, it is the knowing that she is no good for her husband. That she cannot properly love anymore, that she can’t find the meaning to keep going. Her husband and her parts ways on the very best of terms considering all that happened.
It is apparent that they genuinely loved and were committed to continuing to love one another despite the failure of their marriage.
From there, Cheryl spends her time dabbling with drugs, and continues to fill her time with the company of various men.
Grieving and sinking, one day, by chance, she is in a wilderness apparel store and happens upon a book about the PCT – the Pacific Crest Trail. She traces the lines of the trail with her finger and hastily decides to hike it.
From there, we are treated to something…extraordinary.
When I began reading Cheryl’s prose awakened something inside of me I had never known was there before. Perhaps in my life, there is more searching I want to do. More questions that I need answered. And, perhaps most importantly, things that I wish to confront within my own heart but hadn’t made a move to do so before now.
She and I do not ascribe to the same school of thought when it comes to faith, God and the afterlife. But in some things we are very much kindred spirits.
Where do you find a home when yours has been destroyed, or maybe when you don’t feel like you’ve ever had a sanctuary all your own? When you carry things inside of you that hurt, that you cannot name, how do you reconcile yourself to them? How do you find peace? And further, how do you find joy?
Cheryl’s memoir has given me the gumption to actually start a “bucket list,” I already have decided that I need to visit Crater Lake, one of her many stops on the trail.
Make no mistake, though, this is no familiar rehashing of other coming of age stories that we known of. Cheryl’s mother is dead, her family is disarray and disconnected from one another. She longs for the husband whose heart she broke. She will have to face a world that we must all reconcile: bad things happen, things split us in two, things devastate us. How can there be healing in ravaging? How can there be more in ravaging?
There will be no glittering ending to this, no easy to swallow resolution. But we are treated to something far better.
The first few chapters are a dizzying timeline of what unfolded in Cheryl’s life that led her to walking the lonely miles on the trail. They are lush, invoking not just flittering images but a menagerie of emotion. She encapsulates the grief that she feels so very well and you share in it with her.
She carries that grief with her along with her oversized and over-stuffed pack. Like we all do. We carry the things that we cannot name.
Her flashbacks, particularly the details surrounding the death of her mother’s prized horse and visiting her mother’s burial site in the days before she departed Minnesota for the last time, were uncomfortable and moving.
While the middle of the book, to some varying degree, does slow down, the reader must press on. There is the deciding and the preparation on Cheryl’s part to hike the trail and the setting her mind to doing the thing. The first few weeks of daunting physicality that it takes to hike the trail then pauses once she has set out and it sinks in that she is doing this thing.
But we must wait as things unfold in the story, as things unfold within Cheryl.
As she confronts the harsh and timeless landscape of the trail, feeling small there though her grief feels cavernous and wide, she meets an array of people on the trail and willingly trusts and finds companionship.
She writes of the wounds of the land, volcanic eruptions from many millennia ago, logging and leveling of the vast forests. Loosing the trail and finding it again. Slipping on the icy terrain and bracing herself. Up and down. And back up again. The images she evokes are real and seemingly touchable. She finds connection in it all. The reader finds connection in it all.
She seeks to reconciles herself to this world and find beauty and meaning in it again.
Can she heal?
Suffice it to say, I loved the book. I drug out the reading of the last dozen or so pages as the tone shifted, as she was nearing the completion of her journey. One that I am most grateful to have shared in.
In my mind, I pondered just closing the book a handful of pages before it ended. Because there I could capture Cheryl and the traveling companions she meets on the road in my mind’s eye forever. They would still be out there, beneath the stars, in the pounding rain, underneath the beating sun. Contemplating. Finding acceptance in each leg of their journey, the wilderness coloring their lives and giving it a new meaning. They’d still be there.
They’d always be wild.
“…but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside me;
for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know,
though I felt it somehow already contained within me.”
Read it. Now.