Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed


Reviewed by Judy Levin. I find myself writing about another non-fiction book – this one a memoir titled Wild: From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, recently released as a feature film by a new production company headed by Reese Witherspoon and her partner, Bruna Papandrea. Their mission is to bring to the screen stories about strong women, and they have found quite the example in Cheryl Strayed.

The cover of the book displays a single worn and weathered REI hiking boot with its signature red lace. This boot is encountered over and over again as we hike with Cheryl the 1,100 miles from California’s Mojave Desert to the Bridge of the Gods on the Oregon – Washington border, some 100 days from start to finish. The boot signifies determination, pain, grit and endurance. Cheryl and her boots develop quite a relationship. Needed to cover her feet and carry her on the trail, but also there to torture her feet with blisters, blackened toenails, and eventually to test her grit and spirit.

Cheryl is walking the PCT in an effort to find herself again; to reclaim the self she lost when her mother died at 46 years old after a brief battle with cancer. Cheryl needed to find out why she spun so completely out of control, losing her direction, ambition, faith in self and others. She needed to find out why she betrayed a loving and caring husband, got caught up in drugs and casual sexual encounters, dropped out of school and became totally disaffected from a hopeful and promising future.

In a narrative that moves along the trail from south to north over several months, traversing desert, forests, meadows, mountains, snow, rivers and the most awe-inspiring views, we also travel back in time to learn about Cheryl’s life. We meet her abusive and long absent father, her sister, brother, stepfather, husband, but most significant in her life, her mother, Bobbi. The complexity of her relationship with her mother, both incredibly close and conversely troubled becomes the focus of Cheryl’s life when her mother dies, leaving so much unfinished and unresolved. One thing Cheryl recalls is her mother telling her she regretted never having the chance to be herself alone – but a daughter, wife, mother – always defined by others and directed by that definition. Perhaps this is an opportunity or experience Cheryl is trying to find for herself with this expedition.

Yes, thankfully, she does end up finding herself. Regardless of whether you have ever hiked or backpacked, dreamed of doing it or regretted doing it, traveling with Cheryl vicariously will bring a thrill as she describes the scenic views, natural wonders of the ever changing trail, and the many people she meets along the way.

A true testament to Strayed’s remarkable storytelling is the fact that reading her descriptions of the trail render it more real and awe-inspiring than watching the film, shot on locations in Oregon. Equally remarkable is Witherspoon’s taking on the epic journey of producing and starring in the film, appearing in nearly every scene. Her Oscar nomination for Best Actress is well deserved.

But put the film aside and sink into Strayed’s memoir. Her writing is what brings us to understand and appreciate the journey. Read it to watch and wonder at this woman’s achievement, but also to take a peek inside the damaged psyche of a young and troubled woman and watch as she figures out a way to conquer her demons and begin to heal and re-enter the world she had lost.

To further experience Cheryl's journey, watch National Geographic: The Pacific Crest Trail 2010, available on DVD.