Oprah Talks to Cheryl Strayed About Walking Her Way to Peace and Forgiveness
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.
Next: The one thing in Wild that scared Oprah most