Wild – Cheryl Strayed

cheryl

I feel that this book deserves a special introduction. Although I have savored the pages of Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway, this was a different type of enjoyment. Wild was the first book on my list where finishing seemed like I was saying goodbye to an old friend. I wanted the life of Cheryl and the PCT to continue on, no ending, because I felt that I knew her, that I could relate and reflect with her. This might sound crazy to you, and it takes a very talented writer to evoke any type of attachment from me to their characters, but I was completely invested in this book- in her journey. Maybe it’s because I grew up backpacking in areas she passed through, or because I’ve experienced loss, but Cheryl has inspired me to do my own “spirit walk” someday, and it might just be on that very same 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. 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.
A world called the Pacific Crest Trail.” -prologue

“I looked north, in its direction—the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one.
To keep walking.” -prologue

“And then there was the real live truly doing it.
The staying and doing it, in spite of everything. In spite of the bears and the rattlesnakes and the scat of the mountain lions I never saw; the blisters and scabs and scrapes and lacerations. The exhaustion and the deprivation; the cold and the heat; the monotony and the pain; the thirst and the hunger; the glory and the ghosts that haunted me as I hiked eleven hundred miles from the Mojave Desert to the state of Washington by myself.” -Chapter 1

“We aren’t poor,” my mother said, again and again. “Because we’re rich in love.” She would mix food coloring into sugar water and pretend with us that it was a special drink. Sarsaparilla or Orange Crush or lemonade. She’d ask, Would you like another drink, madam? in a snooty British voice that made us laugh every time. She would spread her arms wide and ask us how much and there would never be an end to the game. She loved us more than all the named things in the world. She was optimistic and serene, except a few times when she lost her temper and spanked us with a wooden spoon. Or the one time when she screamed FUCK and broke down crying because we wouldn’t clean our room. She was kindhearted and forgiving, generous and naïve.” -Chapter 1

“It hadn’t occurred to me that my mother would die. Until she was dying, the thought had never entered my mind. She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life. She would grow old and still work in the garden. This image was fixed in my mind, like one of the memories from her childhood that I’d made her explain so intricately that I remembered it as if it were mine. She would be old and beautiful like the black-and-white photo of Georgia O’Keeffe I’d once sent her. I held fast to this image for the first couple of weeks after we left the Mayo Clinic, and then, once she was admitted to the hospice wing of the hospital in Duluth, that image unfurled, gave way to others, more modest and true.” -Chapter 1

“But each day was an eternity, one stacked up on the other, a cold clarity inside of a deep haze.” -Chapter 1

“My connection with him and his gloriously unfractured life only seemed to increase my pain. It wasn’t his fault. Being with him felt unbearable, but being with anyone else did too” -Chapter 1

“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 of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God was not a granter of wishes. God was a ruthless bitch.” -Chapter 1

“My mother died fast but not all of a sudden. A slow-burning fire when flames disappear to smoke and then smoke to air.” -Chapter 1

“All of that was impossible now, regardless of what the letter said. My mom was dead. My mom was dead. My mom was dead. Everything I ever imagined about myself had disappeared into the crack of her last breath.”-Chapter 2

“It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again. To cure me of myself.”-Chapter 2

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.
I was working too hard to be afraid.”-Chapter 4

“I sat in the passenger seat as we drove across the country, feeling my real life present but unattainable. Paul and I fought and cried and shook the car with our rage. We were monstrous in our cruelty and then we talked kindly afterward, shocked at each other and ourselves. We decided that we would get divorced and then that we would not. I hated him and I loved him. With him I felt trapped, branded, held, and beloved. Like a daughter.” -Chapter 4

“I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be—strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I’d walk and think about my entire life. I’d find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous.”-Chapter 4

“I wasn’t thinking, I’m hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. I wasn’t even thinking, What have I gotten myself into? I was thinking only of moving myself forward. My mind was a crystal vase that contained only that one desire. My body was its opposite: a bag of broken glass. Every time I moved, it hurt. I counted my steps to take my mind off the pain, silently ticking the numbers off in my head to one hundred before starting over again. The blocks of numbers made the walk slightly more bearable, as if I only had to go to the end of each one.”-Chapter 5

“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial.”-Chapter 5

“I was a pebble. I was a leaf. I was the jagged branch of a tree. I was nothing to them and they were everything to me.”-Chapter 6

“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising “of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.” -Chapter 6

“Nothing fit until one day when the word strayed came into my mind. Immediately, I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine. Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress. I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.” -Chapter 6

“Kennedy Meadows was a pretty expanse of piney woods and sage and grass meadows at an elevation of 6,200 feet on the South Fork Kern River. It wasn’t a town but rather an outpost of civilization spread out over a few miles, consisting of a general store, a restaurant called Grumpie’s, and a primitive campground.” -Chapter 7

“We are now in the mountains
and they are in us…
JOHN MUIR,
My First Summer in the Sierra”
-Chapter 8

“Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was.” -Chapter 8

“There was no question I was in the Sierra now—Muir’s beloved Range of Light. I walked beneath great dark trees that put the smaller plants beneath in almost complete shadow and past wide grassy meadows of wildflowers; I scrambled over snowmelt streams by stepping from one unsteady rock to another, aided by my ski pole. At foot speed, the Sierra Nevada seemed just barely surmountable. I could always take another step.” -Chapter 8

“I was a startling sight.
I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did like a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump, as if I’d been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by my pack. Beneath the bruises and wounds and dirt I could see new ridges of muscle, my flesh taut in places that had recently been soft.” -Chapter 8

“The good things aren’t a movie. There isn’t enough to make a reel. The good things are a poem, barely longer than a haiku. There is his love of Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers. There are the chocolate bars he brought home from his job in a grocery store. There are all the grand things he wanted to be, a longing so naked and sorry I sensed it and grieved it even as a young child. There is him singing that Charlie Rich song that goes “Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?” and saying it was about me and my sister and our mother, that we were the most beautiful girls in the world. But even that is marred. He said this only when he was trying to woo my mother back, when he was claiming that things would be different now, when he was promising her that he would never again do what he’d done before.
He always did it again. He was a liar and a charmer, a heartbreak and a brute.” -Chapter 8

“I was a terrible believer in things, but I was also a terrible nonbeliever in things. I was as searching as I was skeptical. I didn’t know where to put my faith, or if there was such a place, or even precisely what the word faith meant, in all of its complexity. Everything seemed to be possibly potent and possibly fake.” -Chapter 8

“I lay in the water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world all around me hummed on.” -Chapter 8

“Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” -Chapter 9

“I thought about the fox. I wondered if he’d returned to the fallen tree and wondered about me. I remembered the moment after he’d disappeared into the woods and I’d called out for my mother. It had been so silent in the wake of that commotion, a kind of potent silence that seemed to contain everything. The songs of the birds and the creak of the trees. The dying snow and the unseen gurgling water. The glimmering sun. The certain sky. The gun that didn’t have a bullet in its chamber. And the mother. Always the mother. The one who would never come to me.” -Chapter 9

“One of the worst things about losing my mother at the age I did was how very much there was to regret. Small things that stung now: all the times I’d scorned her kindness by rolling my eyes or physically recoiled in response to her touch; the time I’d said, “Aren’t you amazed to see how much more sophisticated I am at twenty-one than you were?” The thought of my youthful lack of humility made me nauseous now. I had been an arrogant asshole and, in the midst of that, my mother died. Yes, I’d been a loving daughter and yes, I’d been there for her when it mattered, but I could have been better. I could have been what I’d begged her to say I was: the best daughter in the world.” -Chapter 10

“When Eddie arrived, my mother was still making dinner, so he played with Karen, Leif, and me out on the little patch of grass in front of our building. He chased us and caught us and held us upside down and shook us to see if any coins would fall from our pockets; if they did, he would take them from the grass and run, and we would run after him, shrieking with a particular joy that had been denied us all of our lives because we’d never been loved right by a man. He tickled us and watched as we performed dance routines and cartwheels. He taught us whimsical songs and complicated hand jives. He stole our noses and ears and then showed them to us with his thumb tucked between his fingers, eventually giving them back while we laughed.” -Chapter 10

“You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, my mother had often said.” -Chapter 10

“Horses were my mother’s religion. It was with them she’d wanted to be on all those Sundays as a child, when she’d been made to put on dresses to go to mass. The stories she told me about horses were a counterpoint to the other stories she’d told me about her Catholic upbringing. She did anything she could to ride them. She raked stalls and polished tack, hauled hay and spread straw, any kind of odd job that came her way, so that she would be allowed to hang out at whatever stable happened to be nearest and ride someone’s horse.” -Chapter 10

“I didn’t feel sad or happy. I didn’t feel proud or ashamed. I only felt that in spite of all the things I’d done wrong, in getting myself here, I’d done right.” -Chapter 11

“Maybe I was more alone than anyone in the whole wide world.
Maybe that was okay.” -Chapter 11

“Monster was my world, my inanimate extra limb. Though its weight and size still confounded me, I’d come to accept that it was my burden to bear. I didn’t feel myself in contradiction to it the way I had a month before. It wasn’t me against it. We two were one.” -Chapter 12

“So much of being able to hike the PCT depended upon mind control: the stout decision to move forward, regardless.” -Chapter 12

“Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one.” -Chapter 12

“I didn’t just feel like a backpacking expert. I felt like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen.” -Chapter 12

“Yes,” said Pat. “And you’re wounded in the same place. That’s what fathers do if they don’t heal their wounds. They wound their children in the same place.” -Chapter 12

“The father’s job is to teach his children how to be warriors, to give them the confidence to get on the horse and ride into battle when it’s necessary to do so. If you don’t get that from your father, you have to teach yourself…This isn’t about strength,” said Pat. “And you may not be able to see this yet, but perhaps there will come a time—it could be years from now—when you’ll need to get on your horse and ride into battle and you’re going to hesitate. You’re going to falter. To heal the wound your father made, you’re going to have to get on that horse and ride into battle like a warrior.” -Chapter 12

“It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.” -Chapter 13

“It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.” -Chapter 13

“The universe, I’d learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back. I really did have only one boot.” -Chapter 13

“Hiking the PCT was the maddening effort of knitting that sweater and unraveling it over and over again. As if everything gained was inevitably lost” -Chapter 14

“As difficult and maddening as the trail could be, there was hardly a day that passed that didn’t offer up some form of what was called trail magic in the PCT vernacular—the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.” -Chapter 14

“What is he doing right this minute? I’d thought occasionally throughout my life, but I was never able to imagine it. I didn’t know my own father’s life. He was there, but invisible, a shadow beast in the woods; a fire so far away it’s nothing but smoke.
That was my father: the man who hadn’t fathered me. It amazed me every time. Again and again and again. Of all the wild things, his failure to love me the way he should have had always been the wildest thing of all. But on that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore.
There were so many other amazing things in this world.
They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.” -Chapter 14

“I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too.” -Chapter 14

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
MARY OLIVER,
“The Summer Day”
-Chapter 15

“I would walk its entire length if I made it all the way to the Bridge of the Gods. Who would I be if I did? Who would I be if I didn’t?” -Chapter 15

“I was trying so hard to seem content and perfectly at ease, as if I would be at this very club listening to this very band whether Jonathan had invited me to or not, and, most of all, to be neither looking nor not looking at Jonathan, who was looking at me every time I looked at him, which then made me worry that he thought I was always looking at him because what if it was only a coincidence that every time I looked at him he was looking at me and he wasn’t actually looking at me always, but only in the moments that I looked at him, which would compel him to wonder, Why is this woman always looking at me?” -Chapter 15

“It had been an indisputably good time, but now I felt empty. Like there was something I didn’t even know I wanted until I didn’t get it.” -Chapter 15

“Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off. She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.” -Chapter 16

“She’d come at us with maximum maternal velocity. She hadn’t held back a thing, not a single lick of her love.” -Chapter 16

“She seemed to come at me now, the full perfect and imperfect force of her humanity, as if her life was an intricately painted mural and I could finally see the whole thing. Who she’d been to me and who she hadn’t. How it was she belonged to me profoundly, and also how she didn’t.” -Chapter 16

“Much as I loved and admired my mother, I’d spent my childhood planning not to become her.” -Chapter 16

“I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life,” she’d wept to me once, in the days after she learned she was going to die. “I always did what someone else wanted me to do. I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me.” -Chapter 16

“I walked and I walked, my mind shifting into a primal gear that was void of anything but forward motion, and I walked until walking became unbearable, until I believed I couldn’t walk even one more step.
And then I ran.” -Chapter 17

“He felt like a brother of mine, but not at all like my actual brother. He seemed like someone I’d always know even if I never saw him again.” -Chapter 19

“There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course. But I was pretty certain as I sat there that night that if it hadn’t been for Eddie, I wouldn’t have found myself on the PCT. And though it was true that everything I felt for him sat like a boulder in my throat, this realization made the boulder sit ever so much lighter. He hadn’t loved me well in the end, but he’d loved me well when it mattered.” -Chapter 19

“I read a line or two from a dozen or so of the poems, each of them so familiar they gave me a strange sort of comfort. I’d chanted those lines silently through the days while I hiked. Often, I didn’t know exactly what they meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands—so close and present and belonging to me—until I reached for it and it flashed away.” -Chapter 19

“From afar, the sight of Mount Hood had never failed to take my breath away, but up close it was different, the way everything is.” -Chapter 19

“I didn’t know how living outdoors and sleeping on the ground in a tent each night and walking alone through the wilderness all day almost every day had come to feel like my normal life, but it had. It was the idea of not doing it that scared me.” -Chapter 19

“I slept on my tarp, not wanting to shelter myself on that last night, and woke before dawn to watch the sun rise over Mount Hood. It was really over, I thought. There was no way to go back, to make it stay. There was never that. I sat for a long while, letting the light fill the sky, letting it expand and reach down into the trees.” -Chapter 19

“I had arrived. I’d done it. It seemed like such a small thing and such a tremendous thing at once, like a secret I’d always tell myself, though I didn’t know the meaning of it just yet.” -Chapter 19

“After he drove away, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes against the sun as the tears I’d expected earlier at the bridge began to seep from my eyes. Thank you, I thought over and over again. Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know, though I felt it somehow already contained within me. How I’d never see the man in the BMW again, but how in four years I’d cross the Bridge of the Gods with another man and marry him in a spot almost visible from where I now sat. How in nine years that man and I would have a son named Carver, and a year and a half after that, a daughter named Bobbi. How in fifteen years I’d bring my family to this same white bench and 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. 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.” -Chapter 19

“It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be.” -Chapter 19

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