This story of adventure, loss and personal growth is one of those books that readers can't get enough of—literally. So we sat down with Cheryl Strayed to talk about all the juicy bits that aren't in the book, from the joyful and the surprising to the bittersweet.
1. The Scene from the Book That She Hated to Cut but Had To
One of my favorite scenes was about my ex-husband and I living in Brooklyn. It was New Year's Day, and we heard this strange yowling coming from the ceiling of our bedroom closet. So we took a hammer and clawed away until we'd removed all the plaster and Sheetrock. Sitting inside the walls were these two emaciated kittens completely covered in soot and grease. They'd obviously been lost in the innards of the building for weeks.
We saved them, but just finding them was symbolic in a lot of ways, about who we were and what was happening in our marriage at the time. The two of us were like those kittens, lost in the innards of the building. We couldn't find our way out. But I couldn't get the scene to work within the trajectory of the story. So I took it out, which was so, so, so painful.
2. The Trail Buddies She Never Expected to See Again
At the first reading I ever gave for the book, an elderly couple showed up. When I sat down to sign books, they were the first in line. They looked vaguely familiar, but I was in Portland, and it's a small-town kind of place. Everyone looks vaguely familiar.
The husband slid an envelope across the table to me, and the wife said, "Look! Open it up." Inside, there were photographs of me with them on the trail in 1995, and instantly I knew exactly who these people were. They're not in the book—I couldn't write about every single person I encountered—but I met them in central Oregon near a campground near a highway. They were having a picnic when they saw me with my backpack, and, of course, I saw them with their food and nonchalantly started chatting with them. Sure enough, they invited me to have dinner. We had this lovely conversation. Then I hiked on my way, never to see to them again. I don't know if we even knew each other's names.
Seventeen years later, they heard me on the radio, and they said, "I bet that is that woman who..." Then they saw my picture in the paper, and they said, "That is the woman" and came to the reading. There at the table, the women told me, "For years, I always remembered you because of when I asked you, 'How do you go on, given the state of your feet?'"
Apparently, I said, "I just keep going. I have to take it one step at a time." The woman told me that every time she had a hard time in life, she would stop and repeat that phrase to herself.
3. The Details About Her Eating Disorder
I mention in the book that I struggled during high school with an eating disorder. I don't think that I had full-on anorexia or bulimia. My problem didn't evolve into mental illness, requiring me to be institutionalized or battle it for my whole life. But I did have a totally messed-up relationship with beauty and my body.
I've always basically looked the same. I'm a size 12. I'm not overweight, but I was never the skinniest little cute thing. And when I was in ninth grade, I just decided that I needed to be that skinny cute thing. So I just stopped eating. By the end of that freshman year, I remember, I weighed in the 90s, and the sad thing was I got all this positive feedback. All the girls my age were saying, "Oh, you're so pretty. You're so skinny." Suddenly, I went from being somebody who's this average person to someone whom everyone compares themselves to, and there's a lot of power in that.
My mom kept saying, "You need to eat a doughnut." I remember my math teacher pulling me aside and saying, "I want you to go talk to the nurse." It was embarrassing, but kind of exciting, too, because I was getting attention and concern.
By the time I was in college, I was back to eating, mostly because...I love food. Even today, if I could take a magic pill that would make me 20 pounds lighter, would I take it? Yeah. But am I going to not eat tacos tonight because of that? No. So I do have, all things considered, a pretty healthy relationship with my body as an adult, and I'm very grateful for that.
4. The Reason She Didn't Have to Go Through Drug Rehab
I was using heroin every day, but not for a long time. It was more "I really want to use it," but not "I have the shakes. I have to use it." Now, if I had kept using it, I would have absolutely continued to become an addict like the guy I call Joe in the book. For 10 years, he was a serious addict. The last time we talked, he'd been in rehab for a year and gotten clean, but who knows? I was pulled out at the right moment. I dodged a bullet.
Next: How she met her husband