I finally read Wild, you guys. And it’s not because I was behind the game with this one… I was ahead of the game! I’ve been a fan of Cheryl Strayed before much of the world was introduced to Cheryl Strayed, when many of us were still guessing that she was Stephen Elliot or Lidia Yuknavitch (or maybe both, doing the Dear Sugar column together). So when she revealed herself at the beginning of 2012, and Wild came out, I felt a little lost. I was happy for her because I don’t think she should have stayed hidden as Sugar for the rest of her life; though the column was incredible – it would have been a tragic waste of talent, heart, and soul. However, it’s like knowing someone very, very well and then having them tell you something about themselves that makes you feel like you don’t know them at all. Part of the beauty about Sugar was that she was mythical. She delivered letters to my screen, and I could make her anyone I wanted to. So, being introduced to Cheryl was in no way a disappointment, just a rattle. All of a sudden Sugar was a person I had never met, a person with a real face, a real life, a real family… and, for some reason, that was jolting. It’s hard to explain now – but if you went through it too, you might understand why. There was not a negative in this experience, of course, just an adjustment period. So, while I went and bought Wild immediately (wanting to support a writer I had grown to love), I had a hard time starting it. It wasn’t only because Sugar had not yet fully become Cheryl to me, and it was not because all of a sudden her devoted readers were asked to share her with the world after the explosion of the Oprah phenomenon happened, but rather because Sugar had gotten me through a hard time and I wasn’t sure I was ready to immerse myself in her hard time. The closest thing I can relate it to is that moment you find out your parent is a person and not just your parent; that they have had (and hopefully still have) a life that is separate from you and full of mistakes… that they are not God.
Aside from that, I had just gone through a stretch of growing pains. After a year and a half of on-again/off-again with someone I deeply regretted after we ended for the final time (but with whom I now can admit that I learned a great deal about myself with), I was spent. It was the type of relationship that you stop telling people you are in again (for the umpteenth time) because they A.) don’t want to hear it anymore and B.) start threatening to do something about it. There is a great line in Tiny Beautiful Things in which Cheryl is writing to a young woman about relationships and says, “Have you read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet yet? People die because they want who they want. They do all kinds of crazy, stupid, sweet, tender, amazing, self-destructive things.” This is a much better way of describing the cycle I was in with this particular person than how I used to describe it, “listen, I’m not the kind of person who you can just tell that the wall is made of brick, I have to ram my head into it to know for myself,” was how I had gotten used to summing it up. And ram my head I did, my friends… a few times just to make sure; and the wall was most definitely made of brick. After that I felt like I didn’t know myself (even though I would later find out this was part of getting to really know myself), and I certainly didn’t trust myself. Eventually, I grew so incredibly unhappy that I packed up my life and left. I couldn’t make myself stay where I was for one more second. So, I put all of my belongings in storage, put my townhouse up for sale, and left dodge. Just a few months later I found out that Sugar was “coming out” to her fans, and then we found out it was Strayed, I picked up Wild, and we are back to where this story started.
In those three years that Wild has sat on my shelf, my life has changed a lot (and many of you, readers, were there for it). I live in a new place, a place that many of my closest friends questioned when I first chose it because it is a small town in a rural-ish area, I knew almost no one, and they worried about what I would do. It’s true, what I was doing didn’t make much rational sense, but it made sense to me, and I was doing what I had to do: get very, very healthy. I made some amazing friends, I got myself outside, I had a couple of relationships, I lost the weight that had found its way onto my normally much leaner frame (that I hadn’t even noticed had accumulated because, frankly, I hadn’t really cared at that point), and I started trusting myself again for the first time in a long time. And then, last week, I pulled Wild off of the shelf and started it. I was finally ready.
My copy of Wild is marked and written in now in a way that very few of my books are. It’s a diary of sorts, and in subsequent readings it will probably become even more cluttered with pencil marks and notes. Strayed’s writing is just as beautiful in this book as it ever was in the Sugar column. Her vulnerability in allowing readers to see her weaknesses in order to allow them to explore their own is just as poignant too. There are some things that she and I have uncannily in common and other things in which we are complete opposites, but in both the familiar and the unfamiliar I was able to connect with her story. Her journey on the PCT was a very specific sort of meditation, the kind that most people who end up publishing these kinds of memoirs practice: a break from your life that evokes a greater change. What Strayed did, and others, including Liz Gilbert (who so many people compared her to at publication), is an extreme mediation of distracting their minds by actually physically leaving the familiar. Reading this book felt like doing it alongside her, and remembering the way in which I had done it myself three years ago. A lot of people have a hard time with this book because they feel like Strayed was irresponsible with her backcountry experience, and worry that others will follow suit (which they have). What I can say about that is this: the people who are inspired to do what Strayed did were always going to do something extreme because they need(ed) to. If they do it in an irresponsible way, they were always going to do it in an irresponsible way. There are some pretty significant threads that run through Strayed’s life and mine, but one thing is certain – our personalities differ profoundly in how preparation makes us feel comfortable. At the time of her hike, in her mid-twenties, Strayed did things first and thought about them after. I have always, always been someone who thought about things so much beforehand that I often never even did them. So, someone like me will never hike the PCT unprepared – not even if I feel a connection to this person who can reach so deeply inside people with her words that they feel connected to her in a profound enough way to follow her footsteps. It doesn’t feel safe to me to not start by mapping the proverbial trail as best I can before setting out, by making sure I have enough water and food and the right hiking boots (metaphorically speaking) because I expect there to be things that go wrong, and my personality type wants to give me the very best chance of not shooting myself in one foot while the universe shoots the other. However, 26 year-old Strayed, and possibly those who have followed in her footsteps, needed to follow the path in their own way; it’s the only way they can. And if I learned anything by banging my own head against a brick wall, it’s that we can’t keep people from making their own mistakes (no matter how small or how great) because they will always, always find a way… they’ll just do it when you aren’t looking. And in order to become who they are going to become, they need to make those mistakes and find the way out on their own.
I’m going to keep most of my favorite parts to myself, but I’ll share one with you: Strayed (having just arrived at the end of her journey) writes, “There was no way back, to make it stay. There was never that… It was all unknown to me then… Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know… It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was to let it be.”
And if that isn’t the truth, I don’t know what is.
If you’d like to see the very short video I made about this post, you watch it here (along with the trailer for the movie adaptation which is being released in December)…