In 1995, Cheryl Strayed was 26 years old, recently divorced, grieving the death of her mother—and about to embark on an adventure that would change her life forever. Browse photos from Cheryl's life and journey to self-discovery.
Here she is at age 26, one month into her journey.
Cheryl grew up in Minnesota with the fierce love of her mother, an Army brat who adored horses and Hank Williams. Nineteen and pregnant, Cheryl's mother married her father. It was a tumultuous marriage. According to Cheryl, she left and returned to the marriage many times before finally leaving. Her mother was 28 years old. Cheryl was 6 at the time.
On her own, Cheryl's mother had a string of different jobs and moved the family from apartment complex to apartment complex. Here, 8-year-old Cheryl is pictured at Lake Grace in Minnesota. "'We aren't poor,' my mother said again and again, 'because we're rich in love.'"
Sharing in that love were Cheryl's siblings, Leif and Karen. "KarenCherylLeif. Our names blurred into one in my mother's mouth all my life. ... We were her kids, her comrades," Cheryl writes. "The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be quantified or contained."
Later, Cheryl's mother married a man named Eddie. Together they used an injury settlement to purchase 40 acres of land in Aitkin County, Minnesota. There was no house until the family erected a tar paper shack that slept five. Cheryl was 13 when they moved.
Cheryl left home "up north" for college in the Twin Cities—with her 40-year-old mother in tow. Her university, St. Thomas, offered free classes for the parents of students. "To prepare, she shadowed me during the last months of my senior year of high school, doing all the homework that I was assigned, honing her skills," Cheryl writes. "I graded her work, using my teacher's marks as a guide. I judged her a shaky student at best. She went to college and earned straight A's."
Here, Cheryl is pictured just before her mother got her degree.
While in college, Cheryl got married. Her husband, Paul, was 21. Cheryl was 19. "We'd married so young, so uncharacteristically, even our parents asked why we couldn't just live together," she says.
One month later, when she turned 20, Cheryl and Paul moved to Ireland, where this photo was taken. "We rented a flat in Galway and then changed our minds and moved to Dublin and got a matching pair of restaurant jobs—he in a pizza place, me in a vegetarian café. Four months later we moved to London and walked the streets so destitute we searched for coins on the sidewalk." Shortly after, they moved home.
Cheryl and her mother were both seniors in college when they learned her mother had cancer. Upon diagnosis, she asked doctors if she could still ride her horse, Lady (pictured above). Doctors told her she had only a year to live.
Forty-nine days later, Cheryl's mother lost her fight to cancer. While her brother and sister could barely bring themselves to be around their mother, Cheryl threw herself into her care. "My husband, Paul, did everything he could to make me feel less alone. He was still the kind and tender man I'd fallen for a few years before," she writes. "Once my mother started dying, something inside of me was dead to Paul, no matter what he did or said."
Four years, seven months and three days after her mother's death, a divorced Cheryl set out to find her own path. In June 1995, she started a solo journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. "It was a world I'd never been to and yet had known was there all along, one I'd staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope," she writes. "A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I'd once been. A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663 miles long."
Here she is pictured just two weeks before embarking on her journey, showing the tattoo she got of her mother's beloved horse, Lady.
Cheryl began her hike from Mojave, California, planning to end it in Ashland, Oregon. The morning she was to begin her hike, she went to lift her pack for the first time. "It wouldn't budge," she says. "How could I carry a backpack more than a thousand miles over rugged mountains and waterless deserts if I couldn't even budge it an inch in an air-conditioned motel room?"
Here she is pictured 10 days into her hike. She eventually named her pack Monster.
It took Cheryl longer than she expected to reach her first resupply stop in Kennedy Meadows, an area of forest and meadows at an elevation of 6,200 feet on the South Fork Kern River. "It seemed like a miracle," she writes.
Here she is with two other newbie hikers she met at the Kennedy Meadows campsite, Tom and Doug.
After Kennedy Meadows, Cheryl decided to bypass a challenging, snow-filled trail across the High Sierra. Instead, she caught a bus to Reno and hitched a ride to Sierra City, where she resumed her hike with 65 cents in her pocket. Here she is just before reaching her next resupply stop in Belden Town. "I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered," she writes.
Along the way, Cheryl says, she lost herself in books. "In the first week of my hike, I was often too exhausted to read more than a page or two before I fell asleep, but as I grew stronger, I was reading more, eager to escape the tedium of my days."
As she made her way through each book, she burned the pages. "Never had I dreamed I'd be burning books—but I was desperate to lighten my load."
In all, she burned 11 books, including James Joyce's Dubliners, which she is seen reading above.
In August, Cheryl reached the Oregon border. "From such a momentous spot, it didn't look all that momentous," she writes. "There was only a brown metal box that held a trail register and a sign that said WASHINGTON: 498 MILES—no mention of Oregon itself."
Though she originally planned to end her journey in a town just over the Oregon border, Cheryl decided to trek on to the Oregon-Washington border. Here she stands at Crater Lake, once a mountain and now the deepest lake in the United States. "This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash. But hard as I tried, I couldn't see them in my mind's eye," Cheryl writes. "There was only the stillness and the silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began."
In central Oregon, Cheryl met a trio of hikers who were friends from college in Minnesota. They called themselves the Three Young Bucks. "They were three young extraordinary hiking machines," Cheryl writes. "Being in their company felt like a holiday."
Here, one of the hikers, Richie, holds a rattlesnake.
Cheryl continued to hike, crisscrossing with the Three Young Bucks as she moved through part of central Oregon. The photograph above is of Cheryl's push through central Oregon, where she hiked through the Three Sisters Wilderness.
As Cheryl neared the end of her journey, she passed Mount Jefferson, commemorating the moment with a photo.
At 11,240 feet, Mount Hood is Oregon's tallest mountain and one of the last major sites Cheryl would encounter on her hike. It was also a major personal milestone. "The sight of it had become familiar to me, its imposing grandeur visible from Portland on clear days," she writes. "Once I reached Mount Hood, I realized I felt ever so slightly like I was home."
With nearly 1,100 miles logged, Cheryl ended her life-changing journey at the Bridge of the Gods on the border of Washington and Oregon. To celebrate, she sat down on a white bench at the East Wind Drive-In and enjoyed a chocolate-vanilla twist cone.
Four years later, Cheryl would cross the Bridge of the Gods again, this time with the man who would become her husband. Nine years after that, she would return with their children. "The four of us would eat ice cream cones while I told them the story of the time I'd been here once before, when I'd finished walking a long way on something called the Pacific Crest Trail," she says. "And how it would be only then that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I'd always told myself finally revealed."