Cheryl Strayed is 22 when her mother dies rather suddenly of lung cancer. After losing the glue that held her family and life together, Cheryl starts to spiral. She is lost and hurt and in being so, hurts and loses people around her. She cheats on her husband, takes up a brief heroin addiction, divorces her husband, and then after some time adrift, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Some people have written about Strayed’s memoir as a real life Bildungsroman and others have called it travel writing. At its core though, Strayed’s memoir is about grief and walking.
In the summer of 1995, when Strayed hikes the PCT I was eight years old on the other side of the world oblivious that at age 24, two years older than Strayed was when her mother died, I would lose my father to cancer. When Cheryl decided to hike the PCT, a drastic gesture of hope, loss, forgiveness, and moving on geographically and emotionally I could understand where she was coming from.
Strayed spends a lot of time alone on the PCT waiting for moments of catharsis to come and release her from her own demons both self- and universe-inflicted. She is looking for a sign, a way to see and go forward. She is being alone not because she hates people, but because she needs to find herself again in the loss of her mother. Throughout the journey along the trail, Cheryl carries a heavy backpack she fondly nicknames Monster, but the real backpack she is carrying (and I realise this is a bit cliche, but I believe to be true) is all the things she will never have with her mother. She will never get to ask her mother any more questions. She will never get to appreciate her mother as they grow together as people. She has to let go of all the Christmases, birthdays, celebrations, and life events her mother will never see. She has to be content in this unchangeable outcome that accompanies loss. It is on the PCT that she figures out a way to coexist with all these unanswered, unknown, and lost moments with her mother.
When my father died I didn’t hike any major distances, but I did do my own sort of trail. I got married to the person I loved, rejoicing and hating every moment of our wedding day because it was both one of the best days of my life and the worst because my father was not there; and then I moved to a foreign country with new cultures, languages, and landscapes because being somewhere so totally different helped because I wasn’t always reminded of the loss. Like Strayed, my moving, changing, and growing, was not all to do with the loss of my parent, but it did trigger a new way of seeing things. Suddenly, life became torturous and precious all at once.
I think losing a parent young is hard. It messes with your brain. It re-configures how you see the world. It throws you into unknown territory and very few of your peers know how to help you. You’ll hate yourself and others for being happy. You’ll get angry at weddings and photos of families all together and happy. Grief can make you drink, do drugs, sleep a lot, cry a lot, have meaningless sex, and much more. It will fill you up with dark grey sorrow until all you can do is bleed grief. It can even make you hike the Pacific Crest Trail. It can make you move countries, get married, divorced, and/or married again. If you haven’t figured out where I am going with this, grief will take you into uncharted territories of your self.
Strayed waited 17 years before she committed her memoir of loss, love, and walking to paper. Some reviewers have questioned why it took her so long, but if you know the true nature of grief you know it can take 17 years and even more before you have truly walked far enough to speak about it all.
So much of Strayed’s struggle with letting go of and holding onto her mother resonated with me. When I read reviews of the novel calling Wild the same as Eat, Pray, Love but with walking, I was not interested in reading the memoir. I am glad I didn’t listen to those reviews and decided to read it. Although, I am glad that I waited to read it. Reading it when it came out in 2012, one year after my father died, would have been too soon. I needed to do a bit more walking before I was ready.
Have you read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild”? Did it inspire you to do your own walking towards healing and letting go? As always, share the reading love.
Any female memoir that has anything to do with travel and “enlightenment” inevitably and unfairly gets compared to Eat Pray Love. Full discrepancy – I haven’t read EPL, mostly because I couldn’t physically finish it. It pales in comparison to Wild and I agree with your analysis – it’s a text about walking through your grief, not travel. Strayed’s prose is insightful and beautiful, you get the feeling 9(and I suppose the explicit details) that she’s really lived a hell of a life, in multiple definitions of the term.
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