For reasons which are not altogether clear, even to herself and even as she's doing it, Cheryl Strayed--who changed her name to "Strayed" because she rather liked the concept of having wandered--is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. In all honestly, she's an idiot, and there are times in her account of what is a kind of pilgrimage that she as much as admits it.
To start with, she's toting a backpack so immense it her sides and back get badly bloodied. What does she know about hiking? Really, nothing. What she knows is that she's botched up her life horribly, that her loving mother is dead, that her family is an awful mess, and that she needs some kind of redemption.
For better or worse, she doesn't just pick out some mega-church, even though there are moments in the story when she is undoubtedly religious about things. Instead, she chooses to run a gauntlet created by wild nature itself and hike a trail that runs the entire length of America's Pacific coast. Stupid? Unbelievably. Naive? Beyond imagination. Really, in almost every conceivable way, Chery Stayed is an idiot--and, delightfully, she knows it and admits it.
But she's there anyway, on the trail, this mammoth backpack over her shoulders weighing her down (and yet supporting her!), just like the whole world of troubles she both left behind and toted with.
One day, oddly enough, she encounters another human being on the trail, a guy named Gregg, a vastly more seasoned hiker, who passes her on a long ascent. They talk, and he warns her of the unusually deep snow pack which is come once they climb even higher, which they inevitably will do.
Then he turns to her and blesses her with sweet encouragement. He talks about will and strength and guts, and how she has it. There she is out in the middle of nowhere, a woman alone. He says she's got what it takes--toughness. When he leaves, he tells her he'll see her again at Kennedy Meadows, some spot on the trial to come. "You're tough," he tells her, lovingly, blessedly.
That was the day she'd already seen her first bear, a rattlesnake as thick as her arm, and an army of black ants marching grandly up her leg. Gregg's blessing couldn't have come at a better time.
Once he's gone, Cheryl Strayed makes that phrase "the mantra of those days." When things get really, really bad--and they do along the trail, she tells herself what he'd told her. "When, I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night, I asked, often out loud, 'Who is tougher than me?' The answer was always the same, and even when I knew there was absolutely no way on this earth it was true, I said it anyway--'No one."
It's an absolutely delightful moment, and, like other moments in this remarkable memoir, unforgettable. Cheryl Strayed is no girl scout, a fact which she herself freely acknowledges; but this very human account of an idiotic trip no clear-headed person would have undertaken is a blessing because somehow despite her record of carelessness, she is us.
And when she says it--"Who is tougher than me?--no one"--even though she isn't, we love her and we hear ourselves. That's what makes the memoir so memorable.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is not a book for saints, but for sinners.