At 26 Cheryl Strayed was, by her own admission, a total mess. Her beloved mother had just died; she'd broken up her young marriage; she was dating a junkie and was well on her way to becoming one herself. But Strayed—who adopted that name because it fit her behavior so well—righted herself by setting out on an 1,100-mile hike up the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to northernmost Oregon. How she did it, and what she learned about life, love, and survival of the emotional and physical sort, is the subject of her moving memoir, Wild, (Knopf). O's Sara Nelson talked to Strayed about her book and her soul-saving adventure.

O: You weren't that experienced a hiker when you set out on the Pacific Crest Trail. Why start there?

Cheryl Strayed: I knew I needed to do something that would snap me out of the kind of life I was living. I was just so sad and broken, I hardly recognized myself. I was always obsessing: Should I get divorced? What should I do about this heroin stuff? Or these boyfriends? And then I found out that I was pregnant, which to me was just completely symbolic of everything that I'd fucked up, and I was like, Okay, I really have to get myself out of this dark place.

O: But why hiking, of all things?

Cheryl Strayed: Well, what I really wanted to do was go to Europe with a backpack, sleep with people in the hostels, that kind of thing. Thank God I didn't have the money, because obviously, that would have been terrible for me. I knew that traveling in the wilderness doesn't cost as much, and I just knew in some way that the woods would get me back to myself. I was trying to find a new home in the world.

O: Before your mother died, the two of you had the unusual experience of attending the same college at the same time. What was that like?

Cheryl Strayed: In the beginning, I'd sometimes ignore her when I walked by her on campus, but eventually we settled into a routine of meeting for lunch once a week. We were in our senior year when she found out that she had cancer, and she died on the Monday of our spring break. Although she hadn't quite finished her work, the university contacted me and said, "We've got to give this woman her degree posthumously." So at graduation I walked across the stage and got my mother's degree. After that a different kind of sorrow set in. The Pacific Crest Trail was this bright light in the distance.

O: Did the hike go as you'd expected? Were you "saved"?

Cheryl Strayed: I thought I was going to be spiritually reawakened, but after a couple of weeks of hiking, I thought, Well, this isn't working. I should be crying every night and having all these incredibly transcendent and beautiful moments of stillness. And instead, I'm like: Okay, my feet are killing me and I'm hungry. I didn't realize, at first, that taking the focus off the emotional issues was the way through them, but I've come to understand that this is typical of any sort of spiritual journey: You don't get what you expect. You get what you didn't expect, and you deal with it.

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