When Cheryl Strayed decided to make up a new last name, she chose one that would reflect the waywardness of her life. At the time, Strayed was lost in a sea of despair. Her marriage had fallen apart, she'd aborted a baby conceived with her heroin-addicted boyfriend, and she'd dabbled in the drug herself. All fallout, all choices made while trying to salve the deep wounds left by her beloved mother's sudden death and her family's subsequent unraveling. In 1995, Cheryl Strayed had strayed. She was alone; she was a stray, desperate to find a home.
Knowing she needed a change—something to jar her out of her figurative dangerous path—Strayed chose a literal one. A path she hoped would help her "find herself" and heal those wounds. The path she chose was a 1,100 mile trek through the grueling and beautiful Pacific Crest Trail.
What she learned during her largely solitary trek from Mojave, California, to Cascade Locks, Oregon; through deserts, mountains, and snow; with blistered and bleeding feet, parched throat and empty stomach, Strayed recounts in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Strayed's story is beautifully told. Her razor-sharp writing packs punches and tosses laughs, grips readers so that we lumber along paths and wander through woods and crave her beloved Snapple lemonade right along with her. The book is a testament to the human spirit.
Talk About It: Whether or not our personal experiences resemble Strayed's, certainly most of us can relate to the heart of her story. Although we might not choose to spend 100 days backpacking through the rugged wilderness, most of us have spent plenty of time in some kind of wilderness nevertheless. Most of us know what it is to feel , as though we're lost and don't belong. And most have had times when we felt something had to give or we might fall apart completely.
Along with the rich storytelling, Strayed's vulnerability makes this book a standout. Her willingness to lay out her faults and missteps (figurative and literal) endear her to readers—even though some of her choices before, during, and after her adventure leave us shaking our heads, sometimes our fingers.
Although Strayed admits to not believing in God or anything, really (except for the magical powers of a Bob Marley t-shirt that a spiritual fellow hiker gives her), she offers plenty of biblical themes that Christian readers can champion.
In fact, several times while reading, I marveled at how much this book reminded me of David's Psalms—the beauty of the writing, the rugged and desperateness of the environment and the words, the stunning displays of God's creation and his intervention.
Of course, David recognizes God's hand as he wanders through the wilderness, and right to the end, Strayed does not. Even as the book ends on a high note (figurative only—it ends with a literal descent), with Strayed's "healing," with her being found, we can't shake a sadness for all Strayed missed on her journey. Because we see God there with her, in the beauty, in her stamina, in the warning rattle of a snake's tail, in goodness of the people she met, in the protection from the few "bad" ones. We see God reaching out to broken people who need him, people like us. But Strayed never does.
Still, Strayed offers a beautiful story with an important take-away. When Strayed reaches the California-Oregon border, an important marker in her journey, a branch catches a good-luck bracelet she's worn, one that belonged to a soldier who'd died in Vietnam. When the branch releases and flings her bracelet into the abyss, Strayed at first takes this as a bad omen. "My bracelet wasn't anything but a symbol of the life he lost too young," Strayed writes. "The universe had simply taken it into its hungry, ruthless maw. There was nothing to do but go on."
And with that, Strayed offers a great bit of truth. In this life full of hardships and loss, in which sometimes it feels the universe itself is against us, there is nothing to do but go on. It's just too bad that Strayed misses out on the great comfort in this truth: that we have a God who goes with us.