In this exclusive interview, learn the secrets behind the book that became the first pick for Oprah's Book Club 2.0.
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....
Cheryl: My mother's death brought me to what I think of as my most savage self. It stripped me of the one thing I needed. My mother was the taproot of my life. And suddenly, I didn't have that anymore. I had wild love for my mother. I had wild sorrow. And then I went wild. I went wild into my life.
Oprah: You describe yourself as a seeker, and yet you say that when your mother died, religion and God failed you. You write: "I prayed fervently, rabidly, to God, any god, to a god I could not identify or find. I cursed my mother, who'd not given me any religious education. Resentful of her own repressive Catholic upbringing, she'd avoided church altogether in her adult life, and now she was dying and I didn't even have God. I prayed to the whole wide universe and hoped that God would be in it, listening to me. I prayed and prayed, and then I faltered. Not because I couldn't find God, but because suddenly I absolutely did: God was there, I realized, and God had no intention"—I love this so much, it makes my eyes water—"of making things happen or not, of saving my mother's life. God was not a granter of wishes."
Cheryl: I realized I wasn't going to get my wish, and my mother wasn't going to get hers. I had always known that, rationally; bad things happen to people all the time. But when they happen to us, we think, Well, wait a minute. Why would God do that to me? So in that moment, I realized, "Yeah, I'm going to have to figure out a new definition of God". That was a wild experience, too.
Oprah: It took you more than three years of misery to get to the point where you made the lifesaving decision to take a hike. But once you decided, you never wavered. And I've got to tell you, when you started out in that motel room trying to put your pack on—Monster, you call it—and you couldn't lift it, I know what I would have thought: "That's it! It's a sign. I'm not supposed to go on this trip!" I would have gone home, but you just strapped that thing on and went walking.
Cheryl: I was failing in so many ways in my life, and my biggest fear was that I would fail again on this trip. I simply could not fail. I was too proud to call my friends and say, "You know how I was gonna hike that trail? I didn't do it." So, no matter what, no matter what, I had to get that pack attached to me and go. It didn't feel good. It felt terrible. It was really painful. But I had to do it, and now I see why: I needed to carry that heavy weight. I needed to carry the weight that I couldn't bear. That's what Wild is about. It's about how we bear what we cannot bear.
Oprah: It's also about conquering fear, don't you think? The idea of being in uncharted territory, in the wilderness, pitch-black, by yourself, female. Weren't you terrified? I know you created this mantra of "I am not afraid." But every time you said it, I'd say: "I'm not afraid, but I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks." [Laughs.]
Cheryl: The most important thing I hope readers will take away from Wild is the realization that I'm not different from them. I'm not any more courageous or brave than anybody else. I have plenty of fears. I could walk down this driveway and get creeped out by, you know, a sound.
Oprah: Being courageous is feeling the fear and doing the scary thing anyway.
Cheryl: Yes. So every time I heard that branch crack in the night, or whatever, I'd think: "That's just an animal. It doesn't want anything to do with me." And I was right. I could have said, "Oh my God, the bear's gonna come and eat me, and I'm gonna have to run shrieking out of the wilderness." But I just went on. And I think that "I'm not afraid" spilled over into other areas of my life. We all have those negative voices inside us—the ones that say, "I'm too fat" or "I'm not good enough"—and you just have to counter them and say, "I'm not going to listen to that. I'm going to listen to this other thing." When I was suffering, I'd say to myself, "I'm uncomfortable right now, but I can do this." And I could do it. I did do it.
Oprah: Every time you encountered humans, I was more afraid for you than when you met up with the rattlesnake or the bear. I think I could have survived it all except for one thing. What would really have sent me into psychological trauma, what would have made me a babbling crazy person, was the night you slept outside your sleeping bag.
Cheryl: Right. Well, it had been a very hot day, and I stopped at a pond. I was too tired to put up my tent, so I lay down, thinking, I'll just sleep under the stars. And I woke up to the sensation of somebody touching me. Little hands, all over. Cool, wet hands. And I realized that I was absolutely covered in hundreds of little black frogs.
Oprah: Eeeeeeew! Okay, well, I think it's clear that we're on the same page about the frogs. But when it comes to the book as a whole, I think everybody gets something different from it. People who've lost a parent connect on that level. Hikers connect because it's hiking, and so on. For me, the book is a spiritual journey. You were seeking meaning, the deeper part of what is.
Cheryl: I did go out there on a spiritual quest. But what I got was a physical test. I didn't understand how connected the two are. So when Monster was the physical weight I could not bear, I was having that feeling on the inside, too. The physical realm kept delivering the spiritual.
Oprah: Tell me about how this hike helped you deal with your grief.
Cheryl: I thought of my mother every day—I still think of her every day—even when I didn't realize I was thinking about her. On the trail, you don't have epiphanies, exactly; you're too busy putting one foot in front of the other. But one day, as I was walking in the snow, I came to this fallen-down tree, bare of snow. So I sat down to have a little rest. And before I knew it, I saw a flash of red off to my right. It was a fox, maybe ten feet away. At first it didn't seem to see me, but then it stopped right in front of me and turned to study me. I was startled. You know: "There's a wild animal looking at me!" But I also felt, "What an amazing moment." So I stayed still and said, "Fox," very delicately. And it turned and just continued on its way into the woods. Then, I can't explain why, but as soon as that fox began to walk away, I started yelling, "Mom. Mom. Mom." I felt that my mother was there. This sounds completely strange, but it's true.
Oprah: That sounds so not-strange to me. I felt like, of course that was your mother. Not only that, I think your mother was there the whole time. She was at every step. She was lead, head, spirit in charge.
Cheryl: She was. She still is.
Oprah: Do you feel that?
Cheryl: I do. I do. My mother always said—and it says on her tombstone—"I'm always with you." Her biggest sorrow, when she knew she was going to die, was that she was leaving me and my brother and sister. Now that I'm a mother, I understand that.
Cheryl: Acceptance. I had to accept the fact of the hour. The fact of the mile. The fact of the summer. The facts of my life. Over and over again, I found that if I could accept those difficult things, everything else sort of gave way. Each step led me to the next step, the next truth that was going to reveal itself. We all suffer. We all have heartbreak. We all have difficult things. They're part of life. Realizing that was very profound for me. The PCT gave me a really grand sense of humility, which is what you need so you can keep walking in ways both literal and metaphorical.
Oprah: Who would you be if you had not done this hike? Who are you because you did it?
Cheryl: I think I would still be me; I would have found what I needed to find, but in a different way. Still, everything I am is born of my experience on the trail. I feel like I literally walked my way into the life I have now. Nine days after my hike, I met Brian, my husband; several years later we got married and had our children. I walked all those miles, and I learned all those lessons. It's as if my new life was the gift I got at the end of a long struggle.
A Note from Oprah
I read Cheryl Strayed's memoir, Wild, on my Kindle, on my iPad—and in hardcover, too. I love this book. I want to shout it from the mountaintop. I want to shout it from the Web. In fact, I love this book so much and want to talk about it so much, I knew I had to reinvent my book club. So here's the story: We've arranged some extra features for a digital version of the book and on Oprah.com—things like special reading guides and a chance to see what my favorite passages are—and you'll have an opportunity to ask questions, too. I will also be on Facebook and Twitter (#oprahsbookclub). There are no membership fees for the club. Just bring your enthusiasm! But remember, it doesn't matter how you read this wonderful book. Just read it! I can't wait to hear what you think.