Oh my, poor Cheryl Strayed. Pitiful tortured soul that she is/was went on a pilgrimage to “find herself” in 1997. Well, there is a lot to learn here and I am glad I read it but I feel bad for her that she felt driven to expose to the world all her flaws and foibles. Ms Strayed was so debilitated by the loss of her mother when she was 22 that she abused her body, alienated her siblings and friends, and destroyed her marriage. Then she went off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone with a huge pack that, in her own words, “resembled a VW bug.” She didn't train and didn't do a very good job planning, which seems to be indicative of her whole life.
We discussed this book at the public library discussion meeting and several people admired her, her quest, and the fact that she did finish her hike. My take on it however is that she was extremely irresponsible, amoral, and very selfish. That being said I loved learning along with her about the trail and how a serious hiker navigates, packs, decides what to take, and how they get along on the trail.
The first chapters were heart wrenching stories about her relationship with her family and in particular with her mother. Many of us are very close to our mothers and so it is easy to empathize with her intense feeling of loss. However, most people do not wallow in grief for years, use it as an excuse for doing bad things, and make everyone else miserable in the process. She cannot seem to move on. Then she proceeds to abuse her husband, use drugs, and embark on a lifestyle of wanton sex. When she prepares for her trek, she buys books specifically to prepare but neglects to read them! Thus, she gets the wrong shoes and takes too much paraphernalia. We see her on the trail through her own eyes. I am sorely afraid many people who worked with her or encountered her on the trail were not impressed by her arrogance and lack of knowledge.
But, just because I cannot identify with the author doesn't mean it isn't a good story about hiking. Did you know that every ounce is important, so important that serious hikers file their toothbrush handles down to nubs just big enough to be able to hold the brush? You take books but only paperbacks that you can tear off the parts as you read them to discard in order to lighten your load. You also do not take everything you need, but ship materials, clothes, and money to pick-up sites along the way. Fascinating. It is important to know what to do when you encounter wild animals and snakes and how to take care of your feet. Even though it really isn't a “how to” book I did learn a lot about long term hiking.
The book is really about a confused and lost young woman growing up a little late in life. I do hope these sixteen years later that she is a much different person than we saw in this book. Mainly because she is remarried and has children and if they have to read about or hear about her sex-capades and drugged up years, hopefully they are as lessons of things not to do and that she isn't still doing any of that.
I do think the kind and quirky people she met along the trail helped her to grow, to move on from grief, and to see herself differently. I may pass this book along to a friend, not as a piece of great literature but perhaps as a good growing-into-yourself piece. Some of the chapters actually hurt to read, but there is a lot of joy too.