A young woman loses everything, then finds herself on the Pacific Crest Trail
She was only 22 when she lost her mother to cancer, fell out of touch with her remaining family members, and began to drift from her husband. A few years later—after a rampage of extramarital sexual escapades with men whom she had no feelings for, her subsequent divorce, and a fling with heroin—she made a spontaneous and unlikely decision: Cheryl Strayed set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone. With no cell phone or GPS, (this was 1995, before the days of smartphones), and with only her ill-fitting boots and a backpack that weighed nearly as much as she did.
Seventeen years later, Strayed recreates her 1,100-mile journey from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington state in her stunning new memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”
Part travel book, part literary memoir, part wilderness adventure story, the account explores more than Strayed’s physical trek along the trail. As she makes the difficult journey, the book follows her personal and spiritual passage to a place of healing.
Strayed will read excerpts from “Wild” at Capitola Book Café on Thursday, June 21 at 7:30 p.m. After the reading, she will answer questions from the audience and sign copies of the book.
“I always say memoir is not the form of ‘what happened to me’—a story about the summer I lost my leg, or my trip in France,” Strayed says during a telephone interview. “Memoir is about the meaning that you bring to the story of what happened.”
That’s one of the reasons she waited so long to write about her hike and the events that led her to set out on the trail: With the years that passed in the interim, she gained perspective. “Until I matured as a writer and a person, and could really look back on what happened during that part of my life, I couldn’t have made it the book that it is,” she says.
The story was worth the wait. Fermenting in her mind like honey mead, Strayed’s unflinching honesty and sharp-hewn voice could only have strengthened with the passage of time. She artfully weaves her heartbreaking backstory into a suspenseful narrative, peppered with colorful characters she meets on the trail. But the years that have passed raise a question about the nature of memoir itself: How did she manage to remember this time period so vividly?
She kept a journal throughout her entire journey—the only book, other than Adrienne Rich’s “The Dream of a Common Language,” that she didn’t rip apart, give away or burn. Strayed says she pulled heavily from this journal to reconstruct the narrative. When she had questions, she contacted fellow hikers she had met along the way to make sure their stories concurred.
But for some of the details, Strayed says she relied on the skills of a writer to flesh out the scenes more fully. She explains, “You just do that thing that memoirists do. When describing a conversation with someone you met on the trail, do you know his hair blew across his face at that moment? No. This is my subjective memory of events. I remember it to the best of my ability and conjure the atmosphere as I remember it.”
Alongside conjured imagery, there are many hard truths revealed in this story. Strayed reveals details about her abusive biological father, painful scenes with her siblings, and stark accounts of intimacy with men in her life. Though she’s changed the names of many people in the story, she didn’t create composite characters. All the people and events are drawn from real life.
For Strayed, the possibility of betrayal was the most stressful aspect of telling the story.
“That’s the hardest part about writing memoir,” she says. “There is a lot of stuff that’s not in the book. There are stories I could never tell about my family. I wrote about my stepfather with a lot of love, but I also had hard things to say about him … I never wanted to hurt my (biological) father. I don’t think you can write out of revenge or punishment.”
That being said, she maintains that the most important thing is that “you still have to write the story. What I needed to tell you was about me—that’s always the thing with memoir. You really have to search your soul and ask yourself: Why am I going to share this with people? Does it deepen the reader’s sense of the main character? Does it give important information or forward motion? If it doesn’t, what purpose does it serve?”
Ultimately, this story can be read like a hero’s journey and Strayed says that writing it so many years later offered a sense of healing.
“I never set out to write with that purpose and yet I always get it,” she says. “In writing, you’re forced to look deeply at life and the human condition. I was forced to look deeply at my younger self. When I’m writing I relive the scenes moment-by-moment, and I experience a second forgiveness for myself.”
Cheryl Strayed will read from “Wild,” answer questions from the audience, and sign copies of the book at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 21 at Capitola Book Cafe, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call 462-4415. Photo: Joni Kabana