Author walked the trail, tells the tale

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December 8, 2012


By Cheryl Strayed
Alfred A. Knopf, 311 pages, $29.00

Reviewed by Frances Backhouse

Two years ago, shortly before my fifty-first birthday, I went backpacking alone for the first time. Although the trip was short in both time and distance – three days, 26 kilometres – I felt immensely proud of my accomplishment. After years of backpacking with companions, I had braved the wilderness on my own and carried with me everything I needed to survive. By the time I picked up Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, my blisters and bug bites had long healed and the blackened nail on my left big toe had finally returned to its normal hue, but I felt an instant affinity for this young woman who had dared to embark on her first solo backpacking trip at half my age and with no previous long-distance hiking experience of any kind. After reading her account of her three-month, 1,770-kilometre journey, I am in awe of her fortitude and spunk.

Strayed was 26 when she first heard about the Pacific Coast Trail, a high-elevation wilderness route that follows the western spine of North America from the California-Mexico border to southern British Columbia. Still deeply mourning her mother’s death four years earlier, estranged from her siblings and stepfather, and in the throws of divorcing a man she loved but could no longer live with, she decided a long, solitary walk in the mountains was what she needed to clear her head. She set off carrying a pack that weighed more than half her body weight (she soon nicknamed it Monster) and a compass she didn’t know how to use. Amazingly, despite searing heat in the Mojave Desert, trail-obliterating snow in the Sierra Nevada, ill-fitting boots to which she lost six toenails, exhaustion, loneliness and scary encounters with menacing men, rattlesnakes and a Texas longhorn bull, Strayed kept going, mile after mile, day after day. And like any good pilgrimage, the journey transformed and healed her.

In a lesser writer’s hands, this story might have become mired in pathos or wandered off into tedium. Strayed keeps it on track with her honest self-analysis, wry humour and strong storytelling instincts. With her deceptively simple, conversational prose, she held my full attention through all the highs and lows of her soul-searching, and the endless, gruelling ascents and descents.

Near the end of her epic trek, Strayed writes of how deeply her feet hurt: “Sometimes as I walked, it felt like they were actually broken, like they belonged in casts instead of boots. Like I’d done something profound and irreversible to them by carrying all this weight over so many miles of punishing terrain. This, and yet I was stronger than ever. Even with that tremendous pack of mine, I was capable of hammering out the big miles now, though at the day’s end I was still pretty much shattered.” Her words might not make you want to tackle the Pacific Coast Trail yourself, but they’re bound to inspire. Whether you’re looking for an outdoor adventure story or a rumination on coming to terms with personal adversity, Wild is sure to satisfy.

Frances Backhouse is a Victoria-based author and magazine journalist. Her travel memoir, Hiking With Ghosts, relates her adventures backpacking the 53-kilometre-long Chilkoot Trail.

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