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Book Review: Wild

Posted by gck Sunday, November 4, 2012


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Genre: Memoir
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: Fans of Eat, Pray, Love, book clubs

Back-cover summary:
A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again.

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.

Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

My review:
Lots of hype around this one. I expected this book to be two things:

1. A hike journal
2. A wise memoir of a life-changing experience

I found this book to be neither one of these things, and the disappointment colored my reading experience.

Let's go with the hike thing first. She set the tone with me when the first scene in the book had her throwing a boot into the wilderness. Yeah, okay, she's freeing herself from her shackles or whatever, but I'm sorry, what I see is someone littering in the forest. The account of the actual hiking part wasn't nearly as much of the book as I expected. Sure, in depth trail descriptions probably wouldn't have been that interesting to most readers, but there still could have been a lot more than what was there. She gave numbers for the miles she hiked, but that's not extremely meaningful for people who have never backpacked before. I never really felt the length of a day. I did like her description of Crater Lake, but Crater Lake wasn't the only big, beautiful thing on the trail. Why didn't the Three Sisters get the same treatment? Or the other lakes she passed? The towns definitely got more description than the natural features, and the men she met probably got more page time than the towns!

That's fine. I was half expecting Eat, Pray, Love with some hiking, anyway. But the problem is that I didn't connect with Cheryl Strayed's problems at all. It's also unclear exactly how she changed on her hike. Obviously, between the beginning of the book and now, she matured into someone who has successfully married and had kids and has learned to stay away from heroin. But I couldn't see how she learned any of that through her experience on the PCT. I know the author is just being brutally honest when she recounts her past behavior, but it's still hard to suppress the "How could you be so stupid???" thought that came to my mind way too frequently.

Criticism aside, there were some good parts of the book. It was easy to read. When she actually wrote about hiking, I liked it. There's a scene with a horse that is disturbing and powerful. And I think the book might be good for some readers, getting them to think about breaking their dependence on others and attempting their own solo adventure, big or small.

I haven’t done any long distance hiking, but I did a short backpack on part of the PCT in Washington last year. Maybe a longer segment will happen next year? Solo? We’ll see!

EDIT: I found a Youtube documentary about a novice backpacker’s trip on the John Muir Trail. Though in video form, this is the sort of thing I had originally hoped for in Wild. Definitely worth watching! This is part 1/3.


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