I am not a hiker or a camper or even much of a walker in the park, but I love stories about people who do crazy things like hike the Appalachian Trail, as in Bill Bryson's "A Walk in The Woods," or survive stranded in the Canadian wilderness, like in Gary Paulsen's young adult novel "Hatchet."
My new favorite book is "Wild: From Lost to Found On the Pacific Crest Trail," by Cheryl Strayed.
When Strayed was 22, her mother died from an aggressive cancer just 49 days after the initial diagnosis. Devastated by the loss and the subsequent emotional distance of her siblings and stepfather, Strayed found her life slowly unraveling over the next few years. She became increasingly self-destructive, sleeping around, cheating on her devoted husband, experimenting with heroin and pushing away those who loved her.
At 26, living in Portland and going through a painful divorce, Strayed got the crazy idea to hike the Pacific Crest Trail — though she had no previous hiking or backpacking experience. The PCT stretches 2,663 miles from the Mojave Desert in Southern California, through Oregon and Washington all the way into Canada.
Strayed felt confident she could take on the PCT because she was a total mess with nothing to lose. She also was accustomed to a certain amount of deprivation, having been raised poor and off-the-grid in rural Minnesota by a single mother. Though a mental and physical wreck (with still visible track marks from her last heroin use), she was intelligent, determined and desperate to save herself from herself.
Strayed is a brilliant writer. Describing her inner landscape as well as gorgeous wooded trails, she writes of taming her fear about the journey. "I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid."
Outfitted by the friendly experts from REI with equipment that included an oversized pack she called Monster and boots that were a size too small, Strayed began her hike in the Mojave Desert and planned to walk 1,100 miles into Oregon. On the trail she encountered bears, rattlesnakes, foul weather and her own personal demons.
After crossing the California border into Oregon, Strayed passed through Ashland. She writes that at one point she considered stopping in Ashland permanently "because I'd heard good things about the town and thought I'd like to stay there to live." Her plans changed, but she did stay a short time here, where one stranger at the co-op rubbed her tired feet, others gave her food, and a handsome man gave her a night of steamy sex. Yes, Ashland is a nice place to live.
This is an adventure story, a heartbreaking meditation on loss, and a testament to love and sheer strength of will. The book is clear, honest and suspenseful as she moves from one poor choice to another. It is a beautiful human story. I especially appreciate the fact that she does not once have a great epiphany or a sign from the universe. Rather she simply changes in nature, learns gratitude for what she has, and grows stronger with each mile.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.