In the mid-1990s, Cheryl Strayed hit a wall. Her mother died of cancer at age 45, only 49 days after diagnosis. Soon after, her marriage unraveled, and she took up with a man of dubious qualities who introduced her to heroin. She liked it, smoking the black tar and occasionally sniffing the powder. It was certainly easier than coping with the out-of-nowhere shock of her mother’s death, coupled with the dissolution of her union with a man she once loved and perhaps still did. She was beating a steady retreat into oblivion.
Her friends noticed that sort of ghostly mimicking of life that earmarks the heroin user. A best friend confronted her, along with her estranged husband, who traveled across many states to do so. They expressed their concerns, yet Cheryl continued her dangerous floundering.
An epiphany arrived, a sort of low-key moment of clarity, but enough to give her a foothold out of the dark recess in which she found herself. Cheryl noticed a pamphlet, or maybe it was a book, that featured the Pacific Crest Trail that meanders north and south along the US western coastline. An idea began to take shape. She left the boyfriend, quit the heroin, and started considering a trip. A trip on foot. From California to Washington State. She could do it, she thought, and began to plan. Cheryl quit her waitress job, grabbed her savings, and hit the road.
Now let me tell you up front that this is not a corny, pilgrimage type of story, not a book-length metaphor of philosophical mishmash. It is simply a story of a woman walking out of despair rather than continuing on her present path to nowheresville. There are no lightning flashes of rejuvenation, only the slow easing of burdens that had darkened her life.
I must take a moment to mention that Cheryl Strayed was the secret identity for quite some time of “Sugar,” who penned the “Dear Sugar” advice column for the literary online site The Rumpus. She outed herself last Valentine’s Day in San Francisco, feeling for some reason it was time to reveal her identity. If you have not already done so, you should visit The Rumpus online and see for yourself its wonderful myriad articles on lit and politics and of course advice, courtesy of Sugar/Cheryl Strayed.
So that having been said, we can continue the hike. The next best thing to hiking is reading about it, though for some of us, reading about it is the best thing. You feel for Cheryl as she plods along, mishap to mishap, overcoming each and continuing along. She is a novice outdoors person, fresh from a serious flirtation with heroin, which isn’t exactly the best preparation for hiking a nation’s coastline. Her pack is too heavy and is remarked upon by almost every hiker she meets. Her boots are the wrong size, causing her to chafe and eventually lose half of her toenails. She has equipment breakage, gets lost, is too hot or cold, and is detoured by heavy snows in the higher altitudes. But there are many moments in between of breathtaking scenery, encounters with wildlife, and best of all, solitude that nurture her bruised memories and losses. And yes, she is a woman hiking alone, a young attractive woman armed only with a screech whistle that couldn’t be heard for more than a few miles if needed (fortunately she doesn’t need it). She keeps company along the way with the books she brought: Faulkner, Joyce and Adrienne Rich, burning them page by page as she reads them to lighten her load.
By the end of the hike, she is not saved, but she has traveled through something. This could have been a heavy-handed book, yet it isn’t; it is simply a story of what happened and how one person grappled with the pitfalls which plague us all. When I finished the book, however, I had sympathy blisters—watch out for that. Summer is almost here. I say you should get on the trail with Cheryl. Just make sure your boots fit.