It was Reese Witherspoon who drew me to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon produced and stars in the movie based on that book. I like Reese Witherspoon, so I wanted to see the movie, but not until I had read the book. So often the movie is very different than the book and I wanted Strayed’s version of the story before I got the Hollywood version.
Strayed hooked me with a strong opening, and once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. Yet the whole time I was reading I wondered what it was that compelled me to continue.
Wild as I’m sure most of you know is the story of a woman who hiked 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone. She definitely faced danger during her 90-day trek. There were rattlesnakes and black bears. There was the struggle to keep hydrated hiking in intense heat. Other times she hiked in the snow knowing that even one misstep could send her tumbling off the edge to certain death. But much of the story is about a woman on the Pacific Crest Trail putting one foot ahead of the other day after day. The book does not have the drama of a life and death situation. So it wasn’t the need to know what happened next that kept me reading.
In some ways, I had trouble identifying with Strayed. I understood her need for time alone. As a writer, I need that almost as much as I need coffee. But my idea of alone time is a week at a writing retreat in the mountains, not the isolation of the Pacific Crest Trail.
I also had trouble understanding Strayed’s self-destructive life style, which eventually led her to the Pacific Crest Trail. She tries to explain as she weaves in details about her past. The scenes where she writes about her mother who died way too young, her grief after that loss, and the breakup of her marriage are beautifully written. But I felt a little impatient as I read the scenes about her past. I liked Strayed better on the Pacific Crest Trail where she was starting to pull her life together.
It was hard to read about what the trail was doing to Strayed physically. She goes into great detail about blisters and places on her back and hips that were rubbed raw by the enormous backpack she named Monster. Strayed kept a running tally of the toenails she lost caused by ill-fitting boots. I wanted to turn away from those scenes and I worried that she might never recover from the damage the trail was doing to her body. But I kept reading.
What is the appeal of Strayed’s story? For me, it was the fact that she was a woman alone facing an incredible challenge. I believed that she needed that journey to get her life back on track and I wanted to see her succeed. I continued reading so I could be right there with her at the end.
Does the movie stay true to the book? I haven’t seen the movie yet, but in an interview for the Seattle Times, Strayed said the movie followed the book closely. It was a promise Reese Witherspoon made to Strayed when she optioned the book. There is only one scene that makes Strayed uncomfortable. It shows her having sex with two men in an alley behind the restaurant where she worked as a server. Strayed says that never happened. It was the director’s idea as a way to show how low Strayed fell after her mother’s death.
I came away from the book feeling like I want to do something that will challenge me physically. I don’t know what that will be, but I guarantee it won’t be the Pacific Crest Trail. For now, I’m just looking forward to seeing the movie.