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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cheryl Strayed's Wild Is a 2nd Skin for the Soul

Posted By on Tue, Apr 3, 2012 at 9:30 AM


Cheryl Strayed is a motherfucking heart surgeon. Her new memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is the wound. But it's also the healing, and it's also the raw, muscular pulse of human triumph.

I've followed Strayed's work for a while, in her Dear Sugar incarnations and elsewhere, so the themes of Wild are familiar. Strayed's mourning over the too-early death of her mother from cancer. The brief affair with heroin. The many brief affairs with men that led to the slow disintegration of her first marriage. The people she called "family" falling away despite her attempts to keep them together. The peculiar wanting and lust that undercut her many griefs, so frank they feel almost oppressive in their evocation.

"The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods," she writes early on. Yet despite my knowledge of Strayed's major life plots, they took on a different feel when told through the lens of an agonizing, sun-scorched and snow-blown hike from the Mojave Desert to Washington state on the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Strayed, who appears tonight at Book Passage in the Ferry Building, was not an experienced hiker when, at 26, she took a really long walk to put her life back together -- 1,100 miles, to be exact. Throughout her (mis)adventures with rattlesnakes, bears, waking up covered in frogs, and losing her shoes off the side of a mountain, Strayed's journey is deeply resonant and symbolic, from the monstrously heavy pack that was "my burden to bear, of my very own ludicrous making" to the new name she gives herself after divorcing her husband: "I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild ­places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn't have known before."

At times, Wild has the cracked texture of a dream. It's obsessed with the anguish of the flesh. (Her feet bear the worst of it. We watch her slowly lose six toenails in her too-small REI boots, wincing along with her as she applies ever more 2nd Skin burn pads to her blisters, to no avail.) Using the physical self as an emotional antenna, Wild is something you have to read with your whole body, not just your eyes.

Wild doesn't suffer from the usual staid, emotional outpourings that befall some memoirs. Indeed, Strayed seems to have found not just herself on the trail, but also the perfect blend of adrenaline, philosophy, heart, humor (her near-religious, descriptive longings for Snapple are some of my favorite moments), and, of course, the kindred and evocative surrender that encompasses Strayed's particular empathy. It's no wonder that Reese Witherspoon's film company recently optioned the book, and that it debuted at No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list list this week.

Strayed's words seem to exist in the nurturing fractures of capital-f Feelings. But the core of it is guts. Wild doesn't move so much as shove you in the direction of hope. And it's beautiful and awful and strange and necessary. As Strayed reminds us throughout her journey, regarding the inevitability of our life choices: 

"There was only one, I knew. There was always only one.
To keep walking."

At turns big and devastating, harrowing and humble, Wild is like 2nd Skin for the soul.

Cheryl Strayed reads from Wild tonight (Tuesday, April 3) at 6 p.m. at Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building (at Embarcadero), S.F. Admission is free.

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Anna Pulley


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