A Wild Life: The Parallels In Wild to Life and Life on the Trail

wildWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed is of a life that was wild in many ways.  The stories of the trail are of the harsher memories.  They say that the trials of our lives are the easier ones to remember, and that may be why we are attracted to them as well.  But that is not why this story is so engaging or why it is told in the manner it is.  Instead it is a story to show how the trials of the trail mirrors/parallels the trials of life that Strayed went through.

The organization of the book helps the reader understand that Strayed sees these parallels. We learn of her past through flashbacks during her time on the trail.  They are also what help us understand the title.  Through the time on the tail, Strayed is able to work through emotional baggage, and she metaphorically works herself from being lost to being found.  Her soul grows in this time and though she may still be wandering, she is no longer lost.

These trials are just the clues to the story.  There is more to it though.  Her last name is a great part of this parallel or the juxtaposition of her life.  She chose “Strayed” because it defined her image of herself.  Though her life was different and difficult before her mother died, she strayed from her path and became a stray as her family dissipated.  This is where we are led to believe she became lost.  It is the obvious point, but she had been allowed to act as a feral child for much of her life and from that we see that she was a stray for quite a while.  She also was boundless in that she had no direction, but with the trail, she always had a direction, once again showing the juxtaposition of her life and the trail.  That in itself shows a parallel because even with the direction, she gets lost along the way, her will falters, and the trials are thrown at her to lead her astray.  As in her life, these have been a constant.

The prologue shows how the juxtapositions create or define the parallels.  The introduction starts:

The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California.  Moments before, I’d removed my hiking boots and the left one had fallen into those trees, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled onto it, then skirting across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge. (3)

The first line sounds beautiful – a place I’d like to be – juxtaposed with a horrible situation to be in without one boot on a rough trail.  This, however, was her reality.  She grew up in a beautiful place that was rough.  Life is beautiful even when we are not sure if we can endure any more.  Strayed shows us this again when she summarizes the scary points – “The saying and doing it, in spite of everything.  In spite of the bears and the rattlesnakes and the scat of the mountain lions I never saw; the blisters and scabs and scrapes and lacerations” (9).  In spite of it all, she kept going on her path.  We have little choice, we either follow our path or we don’t. Strayed followed her path until it no longer worked for her.  She became strayed and then followed a new path forging ahead.  But still she moved forward despite the hardships that slowed her down and the unseen ones to come. This change of path started before she entered the PCT.  Strayed shows this when she says, “[O]nce I’d actually gone and done it, walked all those miles for all those days.  There was a realization that what I’d thought was the beginning had not really been the beginning at all”(10). And even though, she thought that the beginning was when she learned her mother had cancer, I believe that she had started on the path when her father left and the family began their journey through life without him.  This is shown throughout the chapters as she describes her life before the trail.  This is how we see that the trail mirrors her life.

The trail kept things real and kept Strayed honest to herself.  She learned that the hiking of the trail limited her “choices.” She didn’t have to worry about what to do, but often faced the things that she didn’t really want to do.  She couldn’t make it easier on herself by drowning herself in “martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.”  She had the same two choices every day – “go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go” (69). These really are the two choices we have every day, but the trail made that so much clearer for Strayed.  She learned to appreciate these two choices and would eventually use them in her life after the PCT.  The simple choices are also what got her through life in her earlier years.  When they lived in the forest, there were few choices in daily life.

As a child, Strayed’s family moved to the woods and their way of life became similar to the way of life on the trail.  She shows this when she says, “In our new life as pioneers, even meeting the simplest needs often involved a grueling litany of tasks, rigorous and full of boondoggle.  Our kitchen was a Coleman camp stove, a fire ring, an old-fashioned icebox Eddie built that depended on actual ice to keep things even mildly cool, a detached sink propped against an outside wall of the shack, and a bucket of water with a lid on it” (16). This is not much different from life on the trail where a small gas stove cooks the dehydrated meals, the dirt or the creak water is the sink, and the water has to be filtered and hauled.  The simplicities of modern life are gone, but life is simpler by the lack of choices and tasks.  She needs to walk on the trail moving forward and take care of her needs; there is nothing more important or simpler than that.  It is not easy, but it is simple.

Though the trail life parallel’s her earlier life, she still felt unprepared for the trail when she actually arrived.  This happens often when we make big life decisions.  There were a lot of unknowns in the beginning of the trail, so what she noticed was how unprepared she actually was.  She stated, “I had, after all, spent my teen years roughing it in the Minnesota northwoods.  My family vacations had always involved some form of camping, and so had the trips I’d taken with Paul or alone or with friends.  I’d slept in the back of my truck, camped out in parks and national forests more times than I could count.  But now, here, having only these clothes at hand, I felt suddenly like a fraud” (32). She felt deceitful because this was different and unknown.  Before there had been an element of the known, but that was gone.  She had put herself in a new situation where she had no one else to rely on or the convenience to go get what she needed.  This was a learning curve.

Another instance where she shows the wildness in her life, she tells us of her father.  She relates to him as being wild.  She says, “Of all the wild things, his failure to love me the way he should have had always been the wildest thing of all” (233).  In stating this, she reminds us of the tumultuous life she had while her family was intact.  The lack of fatherly love was what had set her on her journey years before she knew she had problems or even that there was a PCT to hike.  That life was cruel, and Strayed survived as she could chasing after the next best thing in life.  This hike was the one to set her strait – thus being found.

On the trail side of things, Strayed encountered many things on the trail but none were any more traumatizing to her than her own self.  The second day on the trial she “stepped over a small pile of scat on the trail, a few feet from where [she’d] been sleeping.  It was black as tar. A coyote, [she] hoped. Or was it a mountain lion” (62)? Granted there is the fear of what might be watching and waiting, but knowing it is out there is sometimes easier to deal with than not knowing the future.  At this point in her life, she could face this unknown because the monster in the dark was expected, unlike in her previous life.

Through all the wild things on the trail both terrifying and exhilarating, Strayed grew and found herself making it so that she could move back into real life.  The hike helped her overcome the wildness that caused her to become so lost and move into a found sort of living.

First Steps on the PCT

Our hike in June was great: beautiful and serene.  It was our first time on the PCT and kind of surreal.  I couldn’t believe we were actually on the trail. I was familiar with the landscape, but the beauty still awed me. We saw little wildlife, but many hikers passed us by.

We joined the PCT at the Boreal Ski resort and went south.  We went up and down and around.  We had to climb trees and skirt around them too.  We hiked 2.53 miles out and less back because we had difficulty with a large puddle and lost the trail going in.  We were headed right first, but when we didn’t see where to go, we tried what looked right and were led onto a large granite boulder.  From the boulder we couldn’t see the path but had a better idea of where it should be. We climbed down and skirted around it.  With this we found the trail and a sign right below where we had been on the boulder.  From there the trail wasn’t as hard to figure out.  The view on the way back was just as spectacular as on the way in.  Climbing the last few hills on the way back were grueling.  But we managed five miles and were stiff but ready to do this again.

We hiked in the snow off and on throughout the day.  The sun was hot and melted the snow quickly.  When we went in, the snow was firm and covered much of the trail in the shadier sections.  On our way back to the cars, the snow was softer and more of the trail was visible but muddy and wet.  The swollen streams had a musical note.  But what caught my attention the most were the hikers who passed us going both directions.

The day hikers were a different breed from the back packers who were a different breed from the through hiker.  Most of the day hikers we met were doing this for the exercise.  They seemed familiar with the path and were trying to just get it done.  They were plowing through with barely a hello.  Some of the backpackers were this way but most were friendlier.  There were people going both ways. We could identify them with bigger bags.  There was one group who were carrying big camping pads that took up a large expanse.  They had the mattresses strapped to their backs and were carrying their belongings in book bags or reusable grocery bags.  They were more about the comfort of the camping than they were of the hike.  They were a group who moved quickly without a hello.  Even the runners were nicer.  The through hiker was the nicest.  He had a more compact bag and seemed sure and determined, but didn’t mind a quick conversation.  He looked well-traveled but ready to go.  He didn’t’ look fresh like the others we met though.  There was also a couple with about six kids of similar age and varied races.  They started where we did and headed north the day before.  They were going to camp at a particular place, but it was too snowy, so they came south to hike today to get more distance.  They were the friendliest, and we passed each other multiple times.

At home when I was looking at the trail on TrackMyWalk, I realized that we were just short of Old Donner Pass Highway.  I am disappointed that I forgot about this, we could have had that section completed. Next time we could pick up where we left off by starting at the old highway hike north until we get to where we were then retrace and cross the highway and pick up the trail going south.  We want to do six or seven miles next time we hike going north from Echo Lake.  Now we just have to figure out when.

Little Epiphanies

I like little epiphanies.  They are often difficult to turn into regular actions, but they are just little changes in the way I look at things and can improve my health.  The other day while I was grading and snacking, I had an insightful epiphany.  I realized that I didn’t have to eat in order to keep to the grading.  I could take exercise breaks instead.  About every other paper, I need to get up and move around.  Usually I would make cookies because it requires me to get up and do something, but I didn’t have all the ingredients to make cookies.  So I had been eating instead of moving around.  Towards the end of the day I realized that I could get up and walk on my treadmill instead of eating.  This worked well, but my first instinct is to go to the food instead.  There is no treadmill in the pantry.  So, I need to work on going to my exercise room instead of the pantry.  In one day of grading, it would be easy to get 60 minutes of walking in if not more.

This epiphany is similar to another one I had a while back.  I realized that if I did all my walking before I did my strength training, I would only be able to complete one set for each exercise.  If I wanted to get 3-5 done, I would have to do something different.  That is when I realized that I could break my walking into increments and be able to do more repetitions of the strength training.  I haven’t made this a habit yet, but when I think about it, I can do three repetitions of strength training and a half an hour of walking.  This is what my personal trainer had me doing. We would walk a block twice then go and do some strength building exercises and stretches.  This would be repeated three times to be sure that I would not be too tired to do all the exercises.

With these little changes I hope to see bigger improvements.