“Wild” Talk with Author Cheryl Strayed
I was absolutely blown away by Wild. I hung on to every word and totally lived vicariously through your journey, stunned that you were actually able to accomplish what you did. Looking back on it, are you surprised you made it through?! What were your feelings while writing and reliving it?
Thanks so much for your kind words, Lois. Looking back, I laughed a lot and shook my head in amazement too. There were some times that were really tough, but I never felt like I was in the wrong place when I was hiking the PCT. I was determined to do what I set out to do. I felt very nostalgic as I wrote Wild. I wanted to go back in time and hike the trail all over again.
Your story perfectly represents the philosophy, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” Why was it important for your journey to really be a journey and to take place outdoors doing something you had never done before?
When I decided to hike the PCT I was in a really difficult place in my life. My mom had died young nearly four years before. I was on the verge of getting a divorce. I was having sex with too many of the wrong people. Doing drugs because I could. I needed to shake myself out of the sad spiral my life had become. Instinctually, I knew I needed to go to the wilderness to do that, to find my center again. Later, I realized I needed the risk part of it too. I needed to do something demanded that I test my higher self—my strength and courage and determination. I needed to be humbled and schooled and ultimately taken in by the natural world.
It’s been 17 years since you made your hike. What made you decide to write about it all these years later?
I’m not interested in memoir that simply reports what happened. Memoir demands we tell a deeper story, that we connect the specific experience to the universal narrative and so until I had something to say about my hike—about what it meant to me and therefore us—I had no interest in writing about it. I needed to live more deeply into my life beyond the hike before I could understand and articulate what that time meant to me. Plus, my first book—a novel called Torch—had to be written. I honestly could not have written any book before I wrote that. Torch was the book I was writing in my head while I hiked the PCT, not Wild.
My husband was packing for a trip to Nepal while I was reading your book, and all I could think about was your backpack! I kept trying to convince him to lighten the load so he didn’t end up with a backpack the size of yours! Can you tell us a little about Monster and its significance?
Monster was the nickname I gave my really heavy backpack. We had a love-hate relationship all through my hike. I took too much stuff at first—way too much stuff—but even after I lightened my load a few weeks into my hike, it was still very heavy. But I came to peace with that. Monster was the literal weight I had to bear. Accepting that allowed me to learn how to bear other, figurative weights as well. The question was always, “How will I bear what I cannot bear?” I asked that about my pack. And I asked that about my life too.
I love that you brought books with you and that they kept you company at night. Do you think you took the right books with you? Would the invention of the Kindle have made a difference?!
Yes, I took the right books with me. Every book I read on the trail has a special place in my mind and heart. I don’t know that I’d carry an e-reader on the trail if I were hiking today. I don’t think so. I’ve never read an e-book to this day and I have no intention of doing so.
What was the hardest part of the trip for you?
How badly my feet hurt. I was in real pain. Let’s put it this way: years later, when I was giving birth to my first child without the aid of drugs of any sort, when I was deep in the pain of labor, I remembered my time on the PCT. I called on that experience to get me through. Don’t get me wrong: natural childbirth was about a thousand times more painful than my hike on the PCT, but it’s the only other experience I had where I had to truly endure something physically that was quite painful over a long period of time.
I would have been terrified about so many things on that trip. I was especially frightened for you when you ran into those two creepy guys. What scared you the most and how did you get over those fears?
Those guys scared me. I genuinely thought things could go very wrong that evening. I mostly wasn’t afraid. I did not allow it. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to do it, that I’d fail.
As you kept going, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop – which it literally did! That shoe has a starring role on your book cover. How did that event effect your attitude?
By then I had been through so much with my boots—they were too small, they hurt my feet and so on—that as galling as it was to lose them, I also saw the comedy in it. Sometimes you just have to give yourself over to a situation. I had to do that with my boots. And I did make the best pair of shoes out of duct tape that probably anyone ever has.
In hindsight, what would you have done differently? Would you even have gone on the trip at all, knowing now how difficult it would be?
Yes. I would do it over and over again. But I would take less stuff. I’d research it a bit more. It’s easier to do that now, with the Internet. My lack of preparation wasn’t entirely my fault. There were far fewer resources available then than there are now.
What was the most meaningful part of the trip for you?
There is no one meaningful part. The whole journey is like one big giant jewel I get to carry around inside me until the day I die. That means a lot.
Do you keep in touch with any of the people you met on your trip? What’s been their reaction to your book?
I’ve kept in touch with some of them and others have found me since the book has been published. It’s been wonderful to reconnect. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences and reactions from those in the book. Many of them tell me that reading Wild made them feel nostalgic about their hikes too.
Since finishing Wild, I often find myself saying, “If Cheryl Strayed could hike the Pacific Crest Trail, I can certainly …” which is usually followed by something ridiculously simple like “stay on the treadmill for 15 minutes.” Do you say the same thing to yourself? How has the journey empowered you?
Hah! Thanks. That’s sweet. I do remind myself of that a lot. In fact, I even did that on the trail. I would say: Who is tougher than me? No one. Even though I KNEW that wasn’t the case. It was my way of encouraging myself. This is why it’s so important to do these sorts of things. We get to prove our own power to ourselves. We get to run on the steam of a positive experience rather than a negative one.
What advice do you have for any woman considering a similar solo hike?
Do it. Reject the narrative that tells us women shouldn’t dare to do things alone. And I wouldn’t just direct my advice to women. Men need to hear that too.
One final question – how are your poor feet?!
They’re fine! Fully recovered. That’s the most common question I’ve gotten from people these past couple of months, as I’ve been traveling around the country on my book tour. The body is an amazing thing. It regenerates.
June 1 update: We are so excited to learn that Oprah is starting a new online book club, and Wild will be her first book! We always knew we were on the same wavelength! Get more details and sign up for the book club here.