Wild: 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.