Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Bernadette Dunne, Cheryl Strayed

Wild is author Cheryl Strayed's memoir about her three-month long hike up the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1995. Only 26 years old at the time, she walked the trail alone. Though she had done a good bit of camping in her youth, she was not a backpacker. Her motivation was the classic seeker's quest for self-discovery and insight after her world had been shattered by the death of her mother some four years prior. They had been very close and their relationship was so much her life's security that when she lost it, she couldn't function in a normal life. Her brother, sister, stepfather, and she drifted apart without her mother to bind them. She couldn't function as a wife either, and she eventually divorced. She was lost and desperate for an answer; not so much an answer to "why?" her life fell apart, as "how?" to put it back together. That she would seek it through a eleven hundred mile trek was prompted by her serendipitous discovery of a PCT hiker's guide in a sporting goods store.

In describing the lost emptiness she was feeling after her mother's death in the time before her hike, she says:

It took me years to take my place among the ten thousand things again...I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn't know where I was going until I got there.

In short, she decided to look for the way out of her emotional wilderness by navigating a real one. By living the metaphor, and then writing about it, Ms Strayed takes her place among those pilgrims of sacred journeys such as the Santiago de Compostela Camino, who share their insights with us; and she does so with considerable writing skills.

Wild is written as creative nonfiction and so reads like a novel with a first-person point-of-view. The prose is solid, intelligent, honest, and a delight to read. Ms Strayed's "story" construction is also solid and balanced so well between narrative, flashbacks, and insightful exposition that the reader is as engrossed as with any mystery or thriller. I think that's owing to the author's writing abilities and her literary passion. She says:

Of all the things I'd done in my life, of all the versions of myself I'd lived out, there was one that had never changed: I was a writer.

She certainly is and that could make a reader wonder as to how much of this story is fictionalized. I suspect, not much, and probably much less than Paulo Coelho's The Pilgrimage. But truth is not always revealed in a simple recitation of facts. More is to be found in the experiencer's interpretation and that is the value of this book. It is engrossing because the author is dealing with problems and emotions that are common to most of us, and so it's easy to relate to the hints at answers she finds. She gives us those hints in many beautiful passages that show the metaphor in the things she saw on her journey. Such as:

This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash. This was once an empty bowl that took hundreds of years to fill. But hard as I tried, I couldn't see them in my mind's eye. Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl. They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.

When you get to that passage, you can easily see that she is talking about herself as much as she is describing Crater Lake.

But Wild is not just a book of beautiful prose and spiritual insights, it is a memoir that deals with the get-down grittiness of life. Ms Strayed is brutally honest in relating her life for that time period. She speaks forthrightly of her flirtations with heroin and her seeking solace in sexual encounters. Those were other wildernesses she had to find her way out of, and I expect many of her readers will relate. That she did find her way out, and came to terms with herself, is expressed in another insightful passage:

What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I'd done something I shouldn't have?...What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do anything differently than I had done?...What if heroin taught me something? What if 'yes' was the right answer instead of 'no?' What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?

Wild strikes me as a seeker's attempt to reach the bones of meaning in life as she has had to deal with it. In such a work, you won't find definitive answers or endorsements of anybody's dogmas. But in looking at the collective of such works, you'll find a literature that is spiritually infused. And that spirit is simply asking the question: "What the Hell is this all about?" If there is an answer, it is a dynamic one, found in the continual asking of the question.

And so by the time you've read the last page of Wild, you won't find a statement of "the answer" that Ms Strayed found on her journey; no final "moral of the story" that you can print out and frame and hang on the wall. You will find a lot of statements throughout the book that could help you find your own way (and many are worth framing). In the end, Ms Strayed didn't so much find an answer, as she found a place--in the world and in her heart--where she could dwell with a sense of absolution. That was her salvation found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Such is the value of pilgrimages.