Although I love a good adventure, I’m way too chicken–and old–to head off on a thousand-mile backpacking trip. But I don’t have to and neither do you. Far more manageable, and easier on the feet, is to join Cheryl Strayed by reading her memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail .
As Cheryl takes off, I’m there with her, empathetic about her early life, the no-account dad, the no money, even no indoor plumbing. With an early marriage, drug use, and rampant infidelities behind her, Cheryl latches onto the Pacific Crest Trail as a way to drag herself toward a better future.
But please don’t look for hiking advice. Much of Wild, the first selection of Oprah’s 2.0 book club, reads like a how-not-to book. Cheryl often hikes with no money at all. She runs out of water! She even loses her boots!!
Perhaps because of her youthful foolishness, soon I’m identifying not with the author. I am identifying as the author’s mother.
Cheryl is younger than my own daughters.
My kids are grown, but this story brings out my inner mother. Cheryl, could you not prepare better? A backpack is not supposed to be so heavy you can’t even lift it. You are going on a months-long backpacking trip with no training at all? I understand you need the occasional ride from a stranger, but campground managers are not out of line to insist you pay for your campsite.
My mom voice really is kicking in.
Did you have to treat your husband, who loved you, and you him, in such an awful way? And heroin? You had to use heroin? Really?
As the miles, and blisters, accumulate, I go from identifying as a mother, to identifying with Cheryl Strayed’s actual mother. Bobbie Lambrecht did her best to raise and protect her three children in trying circumstances. I’m rooting for this woman who decides to go to college with her daughter, because, finally, she can.
This mom-identification becomes awkward since Cheryl’s mother died suddenly at 45 of lung cancer. As Cheryl solo-hikes the Sierra Nevada she is trying to figure how to live in a world without parents. At one point she had told her mother, “Aren’t you amazed to see how much more sophisticated I am at twenty-one than you were?” That unkindness is one of many she wishes she could change. “I was such an arrogant asshole and in the midst of that, my mother died.”
Worse yet, for this selfish reader, Cheryl’s mother is much younger than I am when she dies. Mothers younger than me are not supposed to die. “She’d have been fifty that day, if she lived,” writes Cheryl. “She didn’t live. She didn’t get to be fifty. She would never be fifty.”
There’s psychic and physical pain aplenty here, though physical pain sometimes dominates because of the extremity of her situation. The author’s feet get the worst of it and squeamish readers might want to go out for a coffee while she pulls off her toenails. It’s two years after the hike until her toenails are normal again. The events in the book took place in 1995 and the intervening years have given the author perspective and compassion about her former self.
There’s a lovely moment early on the trail when a stranger helps the young author shed unnecessary weight from her pack. Among the items she discards: a folding saw, a fancy camera flash, and a roll of condoms. Unloading her psychic burden is a more complicated and time-consuming endeavor.
But resilience of mind, body, and spirit are present even when good sense—and drinking water—are not. And that is a relief to daughters, mothers, and readers everywhere.
Note: This post first appeared on AskAmyDaily.com, Amy Dickinson’s all-advice portal for which I’m a regular contributor. Amy Dickinson writes “Ask Amy,” a wildly wonderful and successful column, circulated to hundreds of newspapers and 22 million readers. Her book The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Story of Surprising Second Chances is engaging and fabulous story of women helping women, even when they don’t always know they’re doing it.