Last Christmas, I was given this book as a gift. It took a few months for me to crack it open because A) I was nervous it wouldn’t live up to the hype, and B) I had also been told by a friend, “Nothing happens.”
In short, reading this book was like hiking the trail–up and down from like to dislike to like again, enduring painful moments in exchange for inspiring ones, and eventually becoming as bonded to the book and characters as Cheryl Strayed was to the trail, that I was sad when it came to a close.
(Sidenote: if you Google “Pacific Crest Trail”, there is an entire section devoted to images of hikers’ feet, mangled and toenail-less. Do NOT go there!)
At the start of the book, Strayed describes in depth her feelings around her mother’s early death, her poor and unconventional upbringing, the grief and aimlessness that encompassed her, and her chain of bad decisions that unraveled. She spends a great deal of time on her rocky past, describing every event in detail, from heroin shots to one night stands, at great length.
By the time I got to the part where she started hiking the trail, Cheryl Strayed was not exactly my favorite person. She was rude, reckless, and lacked common sense. I thought about putting the book down. But I kept going and I am glad that I did, because I fell in love not only with her character but her writing.
Over the course of the next two hundred pages, a few things that stood out to me:
- I’ve never heard someone describe a bath in more glorious detail.
- She loses more toenails than I care to recall.
- She reads excessively, and then burns what she’s read to lighten her load. There’s something glorious to me in this story line–she grew up poor, but her mother always encouraged her to read voraciously. She read whatever she could get her hands on, from thick Michener novels to poetry. In the end, she became a great writer and published this very book, a #1 New York Times Bestseller and major motion picture with none other than girl-crush Reese Witherspoon. This story stirs me and I love the image of her burning those pages in the pitch black California night.
- She describes what it’s like to lust after a burger and Snapple lemonade and left me drooling.
- Even after 1,000 miles, Cheryl felt like an amateur. I appreciated the humility.
- She runs out of money approximately 9,999 times.
- She encounters enough strange men in the forest to remind me I will never ever hike alone.
- She gets real with herself and forgives herself for past mistakes. She faces her demons and wrestles them to the ground. Finally, a flame of self-assuredness and self satisfaction flickers. I enjoyed seeing that revolution.
- She shares the many lessons she learned while hiking, one being that on the trail you can’t avoid things or cover them up. You have to deal with the problem in front of you. If you lose your boot over a cliff you can’t pretend it didn’t happen. You have to hike for eighty miles in your flip flops. (Spoiler alert.)
By the end of the trail, I felt a sweet kinship with Cheryl. What had started out as enmity changed into appreciation as two things happened: one, I saw a kind and resilient side to her and found myself rooting for her, and two, she matured and became more at peace and as a result was a more likeable lead character. By the end, I felt like I had hiked the trail with her and that her concerns were my concerns, her accomplishments were mine as well.
As the Oregon section of the book drew to a close, I was sad the hike was coming to an end. Truly, reading the last section of the book is like reading a break up scene. You know what has to be done, but don’t want it to happen…but at the same time, you can’t wait to wipe your forehead and shout “PHEW! She made it!”
Those last ninety miles were harrowing for me because she was almost to the finish line and I just knew that this would be the moment she got eaten by a bear. But, she made it and came out on the other side a better person. I came out a huge fan of this book. To my friend who said “Nothing happens,” I say just enough happened.
PS. Affiliate links used.