On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I was wandering through a small bookshop in Fargo, North Dakota when I found a copy of Wild and bought it on impulse. I should have been focused on Christmas shopping for friends and family rather than myself, but we had a long drive back to Chicago the next day with my inlaws and I knew I needed something to read on the ride home. Friends had recommended Strayed’s memoir to me on several different occasions, and I’d also had friends say they were disappointed by it, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity.
For those of you that haven’t heard of it, Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. In the wake of her mother’s death from lung cancer, Strayed’s relationships to her siblings and stepdad disintegrated and she destroyed her marriage with a series of infidelities. So in the summer of 1995, at the age of 26 and newly divorced, Strayed packed up her life and hiked 1,100 miles – completely alone – from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State in order to “save herself.”
Few books have made me cry harder than this one. Strayed’s writing is sharp and raw and honest in a way that made me feel as though I was hiking 1,100 miles right through her emotions. Considering that I lost my own mother to cancer two short years ago at nearly the same age and stage of my life, it wasn’t hard for me to empathize. Our lives and beliefs are very different from one another, but our bonds to our mothers and their subsequent deaths are agonizingly similar.
“She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.”
While I know myself better than to think I could hike a thousand miles through desert and wilderness all alone, even so, grief feels exactly that way: you are walking through a solitary, unyielding landscape while the rest of the world hums on around you in the distance.
I have often longed for a literal wilderness to run to in my own journey through grief. Living “life as usual” after this kind of loss is in some ways harder than doing what Strayed did. The normalcy of everyday life doesn’t reflect the wildness and turmoil taking place in your inner life. Thus, the urge to self-destruct is more powerful than one imagines before such profound loss. This urge is not so much a desire to destroy every good thing you have left so much as it is a force at work inside you, a chasm within yourself, a black hole where the bright star of your loved one once existed, around which you once orbited, steady and safe. You think yourself a reasonable, grounded, healthy person with a support system of loved ones who will never let you waiver over the edges of your life … until that person who loved you and knew you better than anyone else is gone. Then the vast emptiness left in their place threatens to swallow your life whole, no matter how hard you try. It is disorienting and therefore very hard to recover any sense of stability you may have had in that “before” version of yourself. Were it not for my family and my faith, I may have made similar choices to Strayed.
Strayed draws on the wildness of nature to help us better understand this wildness of grief. In the lifestyle that most of us live in (sub)urban sprawl, it’s easy to ignore life’s transience, but in the wilderness, we’re forced into awareness of nature’s rhythms, to confront our smallness and mortality. Strayed captures this parallel journey between hiking the PCT and her emotional pilgrimage through grief with great power and precision. There are several parts of the book that made me teary and one part that was absolutely annihilating. I won’t allude to which passage because I think part of what made it so powerful was the element of surprise – one moment she’s hiking down the trail and the next, I am bent over the book sobbing uncontrollably, much to the bewilderment of my husband. It’s intense.
All of that being said, a few people warned me that Strayed’s book would disappoint me, and I have to admit that they were partly right. The end of her journey felt anticlimactic. I found myself wishing that she would have lingered longer over the moment when she reached her chosen destination, creating a stronger emotional shift as she ended her hike. After four months and 1,100 miles, I wanted there to be a vivid and tangible sense of resolution to counteract the emotional turmoil we find her in at the beginning.
But it’s this sense of disappointment that I think is important, and maybe even intentional on Strayed’s part. It speaks to the frustration of grief and how it never really and finally resolves itself. And I think that’s where I understand and respect her ending.
When you’ve suffered such a profound loss, you want to conquer grief once and for all and come away from it a totally transformed person, having straightened out your bent towards self-destruction, entirely at peace with yourself. You long for accomplishment. A clear beginning and end. But the reality is that you may come to a point in your grief when you feel like the worst is behind you, but instead of feeling fiercely victorious, you feel a sense of gratitude mixed with confusion. You wonder why you’re not crying with relief like you expected to. But it’s because you know that while you’ve reached this point, there will also be more moments ahead of you when you’ll feel the old familiar ache again.
You will realize anew that no matter where you are in life, you are always making the same choice.
“I looked north, in its direction – the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking.”
Ultimately, I think Strayed remained to true to herself, to her journey, and to the universal experience of grief. As a writer in the midst of telling my own grief story, I’m challenged by that. I don’t necessarily want my readers to feel like I’ve wasted their time by the end of my book, but I also don’t want to leave them with the false impression that it all comes to a tidy, triumphant end. That’s just not the nature of grief. It is wild and untamed. Let it be.
Have you read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild? What did you think of it? Did it resonate with your experiences of grief ? Why or why not? What are the best memoirs you have read on grief?