From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

by Cheryl Strayed

Knopf, 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-59273-6.
Reviewed by Jill Day
Posted on 05/20/2012

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure

Cheryl Strayed is best known for her bracing and raw short stories and widely anthologized essays. Wild is her first memoir and she captures readers with clear and charismatic prose as she tells the story of her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey that spanned 1100 miles. Grieving the loss of her mother to cancer, Strayed self-destructs until she reaches a point where she knows something needs to change. She looks to the wilderness, a comfort since childhood, to help her heal: "A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I'd once been." She sets out to rediscover her innocence and begin adulthood anew on a path under her own power instead of at the mercy of life's circumstances.

Hiking the trail becomes a metaphor for the way she wants to approach life. Her backpack is a heavy burden at first—she nicknames it Monster—but she learns, with the help of other savvy hikers what are true necessities and what she can do without. There is no escape from the physical and emotional pain that occurs every day on the trail; she simply has to keep walking regardless of whether she wants to or not. Like many of us, Strayed had adopted coping habits that didn't serve her well. On the trail she is forced to rely on something other than the comforts (sex, drugs, codependence) that tamped down her most vulnerable feelings. She finds meaning in her efforts to push through all the pain and doubts. "Perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I'd done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me."

Through her gift of storytelling, Strayed brings the reader close into her experience, her thoughts and her feelings. By the end of the first chapter, the reader viscerally feels the loss of Strayed's mother, a woman who raised three children largely on her own after escaping an abusive marriage. She paints her mother fairly, not without fault, but ultimately as a person who is her anchor, unequivocally. The loss of her mother unmoors her in a way that is surprising even to Strayed. It is her unflinching portrait of their relationship and of her mother as a woman that lays the foundation for compassion when Strayed loses her way and makes terrible mistakes.

The story has everything: drama, tension, intrigue, sex, betrayal, grit, failures and triumphs. And humor. The characters she meets along the way are idiosyncratic and entertaining, and sometimes threatening and scary. She bravely bares her grief and speaks the truth and in return readers will root for her redemption as she tries to conquer the largest, most arid mountain range in the United States. Strayed becomes a trusted and comfortable friend you are reluctant to say goodbye to in the end.

Cheryl Strayed is the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Wild (Alfred A. Knopf), the advice essay collection Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage Books), and the novel Torch (Houghton Mifflin). Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, Self, The Missouri Review, Brain, Child, Creative Nonfiction, The Sun and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, the filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, and their two children. Visit her website.

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