I watched the movie first. Then I went online, wanting to know more about this woman who changed her last name into a verb; who walked 1100 miles from southern California to the Oregon-Washington border on the Pacific Crest Trail; whose 2012 memoir Wild so captivated Oprah that she picked it for her book club and was made into a 2014 film starring Reese Witherspoon.
When I at last read Cheryl Strayed’s book, I was quickly engaged in a story that felt familiar and foreign: a woman who goes on a solo journey of healing and discovery. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, anyone? Running away from civilization and re-finding yourself in nature. A modern day Thoreau? Or Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild?
While Strayed’s story resonates with these predecessors, none of them seemed to fit Strayed’s story. It isn’t just a hiking adventure novel. It isn’t a Romantic escape-to-the-wilderness, run-away-from-your-problems tale. And it certainly isn’t an escape through self-indulgent luxury as in Gilbert’s case. Strayed does “run away,” but it happens earlier in her life, after her mother dies from cancer. Unsure how to deal with her grief at twenty-two, Strayed has sex with a string of random men. She dabbles in heroin. She aborts a pregnancy. Her marriage ends.
Then, four years after her mother’s death, Strayed decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She wants to confront her loss, grief, guilt, and self-destructiveness on the hike. Yet due to the physical grind of walking, her Thoreau-like hopes didn’t last too long:
“I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes…Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips…
There’s nothing romantic about losing your flesh or toenails.
So what type of story is Wild? When Cheryl reaches Ashland, Oregon, she meets a woman who admires her for traveling “the pilgrim way.” That’s when it dawned on me that Wild is a modern-day pilgrim story, but with a twist.
Pilgrim texts follow a narrative from brokenness to redemption. A paradigmatic example from the medieval period is Dante’s Divine Comedy in which Dante travels from the pits of hell to the heights of paradise where he at last sees God. The story is an allegory for the soul’s journey from sin to salvation. Similarly, Cheryl Strayed is grappling with her sins and sorrows, climbing a literal and allegorical mountain looking for redemption. She is not unlike Dante who,
Midway this way of life we’re bound upon
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone…
Cheryl Strayed recognizes she went wrong. Her new legal name prompted by her divorce is a permanent reminder of her past. She is quick to explain, however, that she didn’t choose “strayed” for its negative connotations, contrary to what one would think. She chose it because of its potential for power and transformation: “I had strayed…I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before”.
Different levels of meaning can be found in pilgrimage stories. The physical or literal journey creates the occasion for the spiritual or allegorical one. Strayed frequently talks about the relationship between the two. She christens her backpack Monster and considers it a metaphor for her burden to bear. She reflects, “…perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away.” Her emotional suffering can be summed up by her self-given identity: “the woman with the hole in her heart.” After trying to fill that hole with drugs and sex, she now tries the simple and ancient practice of walking.
In pilgrim narratives, the characters walk towards a site of religious significance, usually Jerusalem or Rome or the grave of a saint, with the hope of encountering God there. Strayed’s destination is a bridge aptly named the Bridge of the Gods that links Oregon to Washington. That’s about as far as the symbolism goes, however. Early in her memoir, Strayed says she doesn’t profess to any religion and, in fact, acknowledges her dislike for God. Strayed is looking for transformation from and by herself: “I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again.” Therein lies the difference between pilgrimage texts of the medieval period and this pilgrimage text of the 21st century. God isn’t the source of transformation—the pilgrim is. Maybe this is why Strayed’s story is so compelling to our postmodern culture. It highlights our do-it-yourself, save-yourself world where the same individual who strays from the path can find the way back again.
So is the hole in Strayed’s heart filled by the end of the book? Yes and no. When Strayed reaches Crater Lake (whose name incidentally echoes her previous self-given identity), the physical place becomes a metaphor of her spiritual state. This is the site of her revelation, the spot that “made [her] feel as if [she’d] arrived”, though it isn’t really clear how or why. She can’t picture Mount Mazama that once erupted there, creating a crater that took hundreds of years for rain and snow to fill. To her, “there was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.” She sees Crater Lake as she is now—transformed and full.
Strayed’s pilgrimage is a powerful story of transformation, regardless of who or what changed her. There’s no doubt that long trips in the wilderness can alter you, especially if you let it. And Strayed let it. Her courage and perseverance are admirable as she goes “from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” And yet because Strayed starts out so contrite and desperate even (who chooses to walk 1100 miles to heal?) her reflections in the last quarter of the memoir fall surprisingly flat:
“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? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something?…What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here?
Really? I asked at this point. I am myself prone to the whole “no regrets” philosophy common in our culture. We don’t like to make mistakes or admit them. Other times, we too easily condone them with the truism that they shape who we are now. After such a transforming story, for Strayed to go back and essentially say “it’s all good” robbed her work of its own power.
Strayed’s heart may be filled by the end of the book, but I’m not exactly sure what it’s filled with. Comforting clichés? Convenient justifications? It’s almost as if she’s come full circle to deflecting her grief. Even if Strayed had chosen her last name to be descriptive of her mistakes rather than some poetic statement about the power of darkness, it wouldn’t have lost strength—it would have added to it by showing her humanness. Same with her tears. The one and only time she cried on trail is near the end, after meeting a young boy with a llama who sings her a heart-wrenching version of “Red River Valley” upon hearing that she lost her mother. At last she’s visibly grieving, I thought to myself as I watched this scene in the movie. Yet the book reveals her tears are already post grief: “I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because I was happy…I was crying because I was full.” We read that Cheryl goes from half to whole or weak to strong on the Pacific Crest Trail without seeing how she got there. But strength isn’t just saying I’ve accepted everything—or I’m even glad for it—and I’m fine now. There is a place for lament, even in a life turned around or a life well lived. Sometimes you really do have regrets, and it’s learning to live with them and because of them that gives a different kind of strength.