Wild and wonderful

Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found
Cheryl Strayed
Atlantic Books, €12.85;ebook. €8.13

Wild is a massive bestseller in the US, where it is currently being filmed starring Reese Witherspoon (who bought the rights), with a script by Nick Hornby. It is a riveting read, an unusual true-life story told with skill and good humour.

In 1995 Cheryl Strayed was a troubled 26-year-old, flirting with heroin and addicted to casual sex, when she decided to hike 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. She was recently divorced, and still struggling to recover from her mother’s sudden death, and the subsequent disintegration of her family. She was, as a stranger observed, an actual stray. Her unusual surname is no accident. Given the chance to choose a new surname after her divorce, when she was badly adrift in her life, she chose to be Cheryl Strayed.

Because she had saved a little money, bought a lot of equipment and a hefty guidebook to the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl thought herself well-prepared. But she had never hiked before, nor slept a night in a tent. The PCT is America’s least frequented and most challenging long-distance trail, running through the wilderness, far from any towns. Hikers must mail supplies to designated Post Offices along the route. Cheryl aimed to walk from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border, through dramatic extremes of climate. Starting out in the desert, within a month she is forced to move off the trail to avoid heavy snow. Cheryl often hiked for days without meeting other people. Mountain lions, bears and rattlesnakes were among the major hazards, ants and frogs the minor ones.

She set out with a backpack nicknamed Monster that she could barely lift, tormented by shoes that were too small. But she persisted because she was determined to change her life, and to become the person she used to be, one she describes as “strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good”. She uses willpower to overcome her fears, telling herself that she is strong and brave, until she really is.

As she progresses along the trail, her past is cleverly revealed. The emotional devastation caused by the sudden death of her mother from cancer four years earlier falls into perspective. When eventually she meets some male hikers she learns to become “one of the boys” for the first time in her life, and not to rely on her looks to be popular and loved.

Initial fears that Wild would feature the banal musings of an airhead in search of her “real self” quickly evaporate as Cheryl’s intelligence, determination and courage, as well as her self doubts and sense of humour are revealed. Lovers of the outdoors and extreme adventure will enjoy her story every bit as much as those more interested in Cheryl’s psychological pilgrimage.


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