Monday, 23 April 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Cheryl Strayed's 'Wild'

   Right after reading Drop Dead Healthy and taking in its author's repeated, research-supported warnings about the dangers of the sedentary life, I devoured Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, beginning on my couch (Saturday morning), then (all Saturday afternoon) on the couch of Alex, whose plants I'd agreed to water. Sloth never felt so satisfying.
   Strayed—a name of her own choice, selected after the divorce that was finalized shortly before the trek described in Wild—has assembled the most remarkable of stories, all the more impressive because she lived through it: about two decades ago, during summer, she hiked a large chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail, starting in literally blistering desert heat in SoCal and finishing up at the rain-soaked Oregon-Washington border. Strayed planned the expedition as a solo experience. To call her a veteran hiker would be a gross exaggeration.
   Her boots did not fit; she over-packed and was tragically underfunded (at one point between check in points, she possessed exactly two pennies); she got lost several times; and she was not physically or mentally prepared for the solitude, the obstacles, and the overall hardship.
  Shortly before the trek, though, Strayed's life had become unraveled. A profoundly close relationship ended with her mother's death from cancer. Her marriage and family life soon disintegrated. Living Peaches' famous call to 'Fuck the pain away' before Peaches had sung the words, Strayed fell into sad promiscuity and, eventually, heroin use.
   For Strayed, the Pacific Crest Trail was not an adventure so much as an escape route. Without it, addiction and death seemed nothing short of inevitable.
   For a book of tremendous sadness and much fury at the cold heart of the cosmos, Wild can also be surprisingly joyful. Strayed is looking back at herself from a distance of two decades, and makes fun of her lack of preparation and not infrequent mistakes (such as: having a backpack so unwieldy that she cannot lift it, or buying the totally wrong fuel for her camp stove and initially having no means to cook food). She recounts friendships, adventures, dangers; a latter-day Romantic, she's keen to depict the spectacular, balm-like beauty of the natural world. (All the while, though, she's grieving and furious; she does not seem the kind to accept mortality and unfairness and cruelty with poise and resignation.)
   A delight throughout its 311 pages, Wild will no doubt appeal particularly to readers whose life has gone/is going pear shaped. Despite addiction, a violent father, poverty, divorce, and a mother's too-early death, Strayed has thrived. That resilience is astonishing, truly inspiring.

[The actual review appeared in the Vancouver Sun.]


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