Wild may have been one of the most anticipated movies of the last awards season, but before it was a movie, it was a best-selling novel by Cheryl Strayed. In Wild, Cheryl searches for a reason to keep fighting after the death of her mother and end of her marriage. She has hit rock bottom and sees backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as the only way to find her strength again. Wild is a story of rebirth and survival. Cheryl begins the novel inexperienced and alone. Her pack is too heavy and her heart is breaking, but as she continues on her journey she lightens her load, makes some friends, and learns how to forgive herself and move forward.
For the most part, Cheryl is alone with her thoughts. This novel was written in 1998 when very few women had backpacked the PCT, especially alone. Most of the other backpackers are surprised at her willingness to do by herself. Much of the first half of the novel deals with Cheryl learning to survive on her own. She camped often in her youth, but she has never backpacked before. She did not even go on practice runs. As a result, her body is not prepared for the strenuous journey. She starts out slow and has to spend days recovering.
I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born from 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.
She is alone, so she has to convince herself to move forward and continue on. Many backpackers are surprised at her foolishness and bravery; even they would not carry a pack as heavy as hers. But Cheryl knows that she has been through the worst. She knows that nothing can hurt her now. And she does make it. She is slow at first and her body aches every day—some nights she does not even have the will to make herself dinner—but she recovers and grows stronger. Eventually she is keeping up with everyone else. She still feels the pain, but she no longer has the will to quit.
Much of the novel deals with the guilt that Cheryl feels for the mistakes she has made. When she starts the hike her pack is incredibly heavy, she is inexperienced, and she is filled with guilt. She puts all of her money into this journey and this is her last attempt to come back. As her journey continues, she is alone with her thoughts and her actions and eventually, this leads her to realize that what she did was not her fault.
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 a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do?
Her mother died and she dealt with extreme grief. She became a different person, and did things she regretted, but there is no going back now. Cheryl learns to accept who she has become and move forward. She realizes that the things she did, she did because she had to and she has to move forward. Cheryl finds her strength by confronting herself. She had spent years apologizing and making excuses for herself to others, but after being alone for weeks she is finally able to accept the person she has become.
I’m a free spirit who never had the balls to be free.
In addition to forgiving herself, Cheryl must also learn to forgive her mother. She misses her mother terribly and in a small way blames her for dying. On her mother’s birthday, she recounts all of the things that her mother did wrong and hates her for it. She cries and fights her grief and struggles to move past it.
I didn’t get to grow up and pull away from her and bitch about her with my friends and confront her about the things I’d wished she’d done differently… Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me… It forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child.
More than her own guilt, it takes Cheryl a while to accept and deal with the guilt she has placed on her dead mother. Her mother’s death changed her forever. It caused her to become a new person and restart her life. Her mother had always been her rock and her best friend, and without her, she felt lost. She has to become a new person and find her strength without her mother. She has to move forward and stop blaming herself and her mother for the choices she has made. Her happiness lies in her acceptance of what has happened. In one poignant scene she has to kill her mother’s horse by shooting it. She shoots it, but the horse does not die easily. It is a slow and painful death, just like the death of her mother. Cheryl has to realize that she cannot blame her mother for being human and being imperfect. She learns to accept the time that she did have with her mother and move forward.
This novel is a story of grief and finding happiness when one has lost it all, and soon Cheryl finds her strength again. Being in the wild alone gives her clarity that she has never had before. She fights her fear and her guilt and she finds a way to persevere.
The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer – and yet also, like most things, so very simply – was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll of hay…I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.
Putting herself in more danger than she had ever experienced allowed her to realize that she could overcome anything and survive. Her life was her own and she wanted to fight for it. In the real world there are too many distractions, too many things that allow us to numb the pain. On her own, Cheryl is able to face herself and figure out who she has become. She finds her strength and even finds happiness, all because she is able to prove to herself that no matter what, she has the strength to survive.
How wild it was to let it be.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the bestselling advice essay collection, Tiny Beautiful Things, and the novel Torch. She is a regular columnist for the The New York Times Book Review and a co-host, along with Steve Almond, of the WBUR podcast Dear Sugar Radio, which originated from her popular advice column on The Rumpus. Strayed holds an MFA from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their two children.