Hiking through Grief
Once of the books I have read is the 2012 bestseller Wild by Cheryl Strayed. The book is the true story of Cheryl Strayed as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death and divorce of her first husband. This book has been read all over the world. Many people have reviewed it, Cheryl Strayed has spoken about this book on several occasions, it has been made into a movie, and was even referenced in Gilmore Girls last year. What I think is even more magical is that it has inspired many people, and especially women, to start backpacking. I am deciding to take a different approach with rather than a normal book review. I would like to talk about my thoughts of the book as someone who has closely experienced grief at a young age. I have lost both of my parents to cancer as well as live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorer, and experience severe depressive episodes at times. Reading this book truly resonated with me in my experiences with grief and mental illness I would love to share my thoughts on it.
The story takes place in 1995 following 26 year old Cheryl Strayed as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail immediately following her divorce. When she began hiking the trail Cheryl had never been backpacking before. Four years prior during her senior year of college Strayed lost her mother cancer at the age of twenty two. How she lost herself and ran away to the wild to find herself again. The book is narrated following Strayed’s hike and flashing back to her life before the hike. In addition to learning about Cheryl’s hike through the Pacific Crest Trail there are also an abundance of characters that she meets while hiking. It is an endearing look at character and how we find ourselves in the wilderness.
One of the major aspects of this book that I did appreciate is that Strayed never dramatized anything. The writing of her struggles felt like she was explaining what happened. When writing about tragedy it is easy to embellish the details of your story and how to pull through the triumph but Strayed never did that. Cheryl Strayed was not the angel telling the tale of how she plummeted through the turmoil of her mother’s death, her own divorce, and battling the wilderness of California; she was just a woman telling her story. There were many points where her inexperience with backpacking nearly got her killed and she admitted it. This included filling up her stove with the wrong kind of fuel, buying a pair of boots a size two small, then losing those boots on the trail, and feeling the need to pack an entire roll of condoms for her trek through the wilderness. These were all mistakes that anyone would make but she powered through it. Strayed’s narrative made it easy to empathize and identify with her.
Many avid backpackers do comment that the beauty and the actual hiking of the Pacific Crest Trail is not talked about enough. Strayed has admitted herself that the book is not about her hiking the PCT but rather her journey finding herself again. Wild is a look into the grieving process over time showing a clear look at grief after it has had time to steep. I have found very few books that cover this topic. There are over a thousands books about the long look of getting over a breakup but not at the death of a loved one. Most literature about grief that I have found has been focused on what the grieving feels right after a loved one but death is not something you just “get over” in a few weeks. The human emotions experienced months and years after the passing of a loved one are essential to the human experience but very little explored in art. I loved that book for that reason not only to look at the complex story of this but I was able to connect with Cheryl Strayed. Her story resonated with me even though I have not hiked over a thousand miles nor done heroin with a shitty boyfriend.
Reading Wild felt therapeutic and honest as it was a way to recognize that the emotions I was feeling were real and others felt them too. There were times when Strayed was making very destructive decisions even though it appeared as if she did not want to make those decisions. I understood that need of making radical decisions just to feel something after losing a tragic loss. One of the more powerful things was how Strayed just kept on walking, she gave herself an option to quit but she didn’t. No matter what Strayed kept pushing on. Reading about Strayed’s journey with her grief brought me a sense of calm that perhaps I too would find peace with my own grieving process
I believe it is more helpful for people who have lost loved ones perhaps months or even years ago but still feel lost in grief. I believe that this is also a book that can be read to understand how grief does linger even years after the loss of a loved one.
Even if you are not grieving I believe that you can find this book therapeutic and entertaining but I do think this may be helpful if you are struggling with grief. If you have read this book please let me know what you thought of it. If you are grieving what media/art that has resonated with you and your grieving?