Cheryl Strayed hiked eleven hundred miles of the Pacific Coast Trail, through California and into Oregon, at age 26, by herself, with no experience of hiking or backpacking. Cheryl is now 43, and she says in a book trailer that everything she is now is what she “gathered back to herself” on that trip. Raised by a loving mom and an abusive father (who the mother finally leaves), Cheryl and her two siblings knew what it was like to live on the edge, as their mom did what jobs she could and moved them around to keep their family intact. Mom didn’t always have it together. Cheryl relates how she sometimes left them alone without a sitter, and spent a period smoking marijuana right in front of them.
Her mother had a desire to be something to discover herself, but found in her short life that she had all she could do was to take care of her family. Finally meeting a great guy, he’s a loving second father to the kids but falls off a roof and is a long while recovering. To put it succinctly, Cheryl and her siblings had their share of trauma and hardship. Then Mom dies of cancer, at age 46. Four years later Cheryl is on the trail. She’s racked up a move towards heroin (which her ex-husband helps get her out of) a tendency toward having sex with other men (which destroyed her marriage) so that she is pretty down when she begins her trek.
What is amazing about all of this is that yes, she can write, and she tells her story well. Some of her agony, from a too-heavy backpack (that she uses as a metaphor) and too-small hiking books, might have been avoided, if she had prepared better. What we like in these narratives, what we are interested in, is the stripping down to essentials. What will you eat, what will you wear, what will you encounter today? Her grief about her mom is real, and she evokes that in an encounter with a fox. She’s sitting and the fox comes close, unaware of her and suddenly seeing her, scenting her. Scared and wanting to say something, she speaks to him gently and he looks and then leaves, and she calls him to come back and then finds herself calling out “Mom! Mom! Mom!” You can see that that kind of loss is always there, just waiting to be triggered - by a look, by an awareness of life, just in front of you and yet beyond you.
There is no real resolution, no grand epiphany to be passed on. Just the walking of the trail, just Cheryl centering herself through the trek. And although nothing special happens, maybe something does, something I can't put my finger on. She does get her life back.