Photo: George Burns
At the age of 22, in 1991, Cheryl Strayed fell into an abyss. Her beloved A mother, who was only 45 years old, had died of cancer. Crazed with grief, Cheryl began doubting her marriage, sleeping with other men and eventually even doing heroin with one of them.
But then something happened. On a snowy night three and a half years later, Cheryl lent a friend her truck, which promptly broke down. So she stepped into a camping store to buy a shovel to literally dig out of trouble. While waiting in line to pay, she saw a guidebook to the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Cheryl had never heard of the PCT—neither had I until I read Wild—but something compelled her to go back and buy the book.
Six months later, she'd started her hike from the Mojave Desert to Oregon.
This would be a huge decision even for an experienced backpacker—which Cheryl definitely was not. Though she wasn't a stranger to the wilderness (she'd grown up on 40 acres in Minnesota, with no electricity or running water), she'd never hiked more than a day at a time, and usually with other people. To take on the PCT all by herself was crazy brave or maybe just...well, wild.
But Cheryl was desperate to halt her downward spiral, and she was searching for insight. I suppose she could have gone off backpacking in Europe, or taken up cooking, or started writing a novel. (She did that later; Torch was published in 2006.) But the PCT was like a little voice in her head, and as I've come to know, when a little voice talks, you really ought to listen.
Cheryl talks in Wild about the difference between deciding to do something and really having to do it; for some of us, that can be a very big leap. She started haltingly, and she made plenty of missteps, but once she got on that trail she refused to turn back. Over time she found—somehow, deep down in her miserable, grieving soul—that she was in fact saving herself. "Keep walking, Sister," she wrote in the copy of Wild she brought to my home the day we did this interview. (How could I talk to this fearless woman indoors? Nope; I invited her to my house so we could sit beneath the redwoods in Santa Barbara. It was an oddly cold day, but Cheryl, Lord knows, had experienced worse weather.)
Here's what I got from reading and meeting Cheryl Strayed: No matter where you are in your climb in life, no matter what you're doing, you have to keep getting yourself up every day. No matter the obstacle in front of you, you just have to keep getting up and doing what you have to do. Sometimes that means dealing with demons—and let me tell you, the logistics of this hike, the weather, the animals, the fact that for most of the journey Cheryl's boots were the wrong size (she lost six toenails from the rubbing), would have scared me off ten different times. But more often it means dealing with the demons inside us.
I was lucky enough to spend three hours with the intrepid Cheryl Strayed, talking about her life, her book, and the quest that we're all on, whether we realize it yet or not....
Next: Oprah's interview with Cheryl
We Hear You!