Book Review: Wild

BOOK REVIEW

WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

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I was looking forward to reading this book. I found it in a thrift store about a month after I had finished a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. My feet were fully healed and the nostalgia for long distance hiking had set in. What would be a better way to reminisce than by reading about another long distance women hiker? However, reading it had the exact opposite effect than I was hoping. I potentially came about it from the wrong point of view though. I was nostalgic about my own hike and so reading about someone else’s hike was just frustrating because I truly just wanted to reflect on my own.

Wild won a couple of awards and accolades: #1 New York Times Bestseller, A Best Nonfiction Book of 2012: The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, A Best Book of the Year: NPR, St. Louis Dispatch, Vogue, Winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. It has been turned into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon. Beyond that, it was well received by many! Lots of people loved it so I believe that because I was not in the right mindset to receive it I was a little harsh in my opinions on it. For to be frankly honest, I didn’t like it at all.

The story follows the memoir of Cheryl Strayed as she attempts to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in order to deal with her mother’s death and some life decisions she was trying to process. This was a familiar concept to me. Doing a long distance hike can do a lot for one’s mental health. There seemed to be two kinds of people on the trail, those who were running away from something and those who were trying to find something. There is truth to the fact that being outside can help improve people’s mental health. Stanford did a study on the effect of green space on mental health and how it can reduce depression. Plus, while hiking you have all day with yourself and very little distractions. Most hikers I know have gone through lots of introspection and self-reflection while hiking. There is very little else to do but think and walk. It is a strange lifestyle/hobby but it is an amazing one.

When I read about Cheryl Strayed’s I got pretty judgmental quickly. To begin with, the writing style was simple to the point of distraction. She was writing in a conversational diary-like tone, which does lend to a simpler diction but there can be much more depth than was used in this book. She was dealing with a lot of emotional battles such as grief over her mother’s death, estrangement from her family, drug withdrawal, and separation from her husband. These could have been explored in more depth, I felt. Instead, the writing style focused primarily on action to keep things moving. She used memories interspersed with narratives about the hike itself. As it was a first-hand account, she could have used this to fully explore any of these emotional trials. Instead, it came across as set up for a film – all action and very little depth. I was not surprised it was so easily turned into a movie.

When I started the book I felt like it was advertised as a memoir of a woman’s thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. However, I found out she walked about 1,100 miles of the 2663 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Including skipping one of the hardest sections of the part that she did hike. Which is still a hefty hike! Now, I don’t buy into the pretention of thru-hikers being better than other hikers. I am a big believer in everyone hikes differently and that is okay. It is up to you how you want to approach it. Some people do the whole trail in sections or all in one go. Sometimes people can only get out there for a week or two at a time, and I find it admirable that they persist year after year.  However, not ever hiker looks at it this way. No matter how many times people say "Hike Your Own Hike", people commented on other people's hikes.

There was a woman hiker who hiked around the same time I did on my Appalachian Trail Thru Hike. Her name was Wonder Woman, and there was some real anger directed at her by the other hikers on the trail. All the anger was because she was misrepresenting her hike. I personally really liked her as a person so ended up being okay with the fact that she was misrepresenting her hike but I understood why people were getting upset. She said she was a thru-hiker and was hiking from Georgia to Maine in one season. However, on her hike, she was continuously “yellow-blazing” or skipping sections by getting rides. To the point where she missed out on a couple of hundred miles.

For the people who were on the trail day in and day out it was pretty obvious that she was doing this. It is a pretty close knit community and you start to know how other people hike. You learn If other hikers are faster or slower than you, if they like taking zero day (days off the trail) or hike every day. So when you know that one hiker is slower than you and likes taking zero days, yet they somehow keep getting ahead of you on the trail it is easy to put two and two together. Some people got really mad at Wonder Woman for doing this.

When asked, it was because having someone “cheat” and still say they are a thruhiker feels like it can diminish their own hike. They struggled through the hard days and blisters and still made it to the end. Which not everyone does. Lots of people drop out, which adds to the pride when finishing a thruhike. You feel like you have accomplished something difficult. Something not everyone can do. So having someone say they have accomplished the same thing without dealing with all the difficulty can cheapen their own hike. Everyone can finish if they skip the hard parts.

 Personally, I think as long as you are out hiking you are doing something good for yourself. It doesn’t affect my hike at all. Some people can say that I didn’t do a full hike of the Appalachian Trail even though I hit every white blaze along the way. I even backtracked a .1th of a mile when I found out I had accidentally missed the trail. However, I did do some slackpacking. My parents live near the trail so when my partner and I were crossing into NH, we stayed at my folk's place at night and just carried day packs for about three days. Some people consider that cheating. However, I don’t. I hiked every single step of the 2190 miles of the AT and consider myself a thru-hiker. So I can see why some people were aggravated about Cheryl Strayed hike after reading the book. However, I wasn’t mad about that.

It was her complete lack of common sense on the trail that got me riled up! Which is judgmental of me. I can admit it. I know what it is like to be inexperienced when starting a trail. The first night on the Appalachian Trail, my partner, Sean, and I made it to camp and was just about to start a delicious dinner of ramen when we realized we hadn’t brought a lighter with us. Or matches. We had no way to start our little stove and that meant cold dinners for four nights until Mountain Crossing at Neel Gap. Except we weren’t alone out there, we were surrounded by one of the most generous communities I have ever met. Therefore, not only did someone light our stove for us, but they gave us a lighter.

When reading Wild it felt like she was continuously getting into situations where she needed help. She ran out of water and food multiple times, not always because of her own fault, and spent her money frivolously. I know how tempting getting a burger and ice cream can be when you have been hiking twenty plus miles a day. Especially near the beginning when that hiker hunger is driving you crazy with dreams of sweets and salty fats. However, giving into that base desire shouldn’t trump your basic common sense when it comes to whether you can feed yourself or not. The whole point of her going on this trip was to deal with her issues and see if she could survive on her own. If she wasn’t surrounded by the generous hiking community that surrounded the American trails, I don’t know if she could have!

She learned something about herself though. And came away from the hike feeling a little healed. Which in its outline sounds like a great story. I couldn’t help but feel like I just did not like the main character though. Which turned me off from the story. I know it was about a flawed human coming to terms with the fact that she is not perfect. Which is a valuable thing to know. However, in the delivery, the book left me feeling cold and judgmental. She addressed her issues and wanted to become the person she thought she could be before her mother’s death. However, it came across as looking at her past and accepting what she did without any guilt. It was not about how she would move forward but embracing her past, even the shadows.

Therefore, personally, I did not like the book. I found the main character distractingly unlikeable and her journey of self-discovery was one of accepting her faults instead of working on them. I was hoping for a nostalgic look on hiking but found her hike very removed from my own. Going into a book with specific expectations never ends well though. So I honestly believe that I might have liked it more if I started reading it with no ulterior motives.  It would appeal to an audience that was looking for a woman’s journey of self-acceptance. It does not appeal to a hiker looking for a nostalgic look at hiking a long trail. So, therefore, if you want to pick up Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail I would recommend going in with zero expectations!