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Updated: March 4, 2013 21:43 IST

The solitary traveller

S. Aishwarya
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Wild by cheryl strayed
Wild by cheryl strayed

If poignancy is an undeniably perceptible feeling of heart painfully constricting and makes one frantically look for a glass of water to down the unease, Wild has it in sniffling abundance. It also has a lot many things in abundance — like chuckle-evoking humour, suspense and wistful romance, all fitted haphazardly, very much like the life of its author before she took to Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

PCT, a trail from Mexico border to Canada’s, running through various states of the U.S., is, as hikers call it, a trail of extremes. There are straggly bushes, harsh deserts, bitter snow, mountain lions, rattle snakes, bear, and scarce water or the perilous profusion of it. Cheryl Strayed encountered them all like in a way any normal woman would, in magnitudes any normal woman wouldn’t dream of. While PCT has seen a lot of women hikers, it has seldom seen a solitary one that embraced aloneness in a vast stretch devoid of human inhabitation. Almost every person Cheryl meets either on the trail or during her breaks at adjacent towns was welcoming and supportive. A few became her life-saving friends, though she did not stick to a company for long. Solitude was her defense, her antidote.

After Cheryl’s mother lost her painful battle to lung cancer, Cheryl felt her life was already spent. So spent that she had to add a zing to it with heroin shots. She confessed infidelity to her husband, and eventually, both went through an amicable divorce. Her siblings, once closely-knit, drifted away soon after her mother’s death, and her step father, who was a constant companion during the final days of her mother at hospice, moved on with life.

With nothing to look forward to in life, Cheryl decided to hike PCT as impulsively as ordering a bag of French fries. The trail, which is 2,600 miles long, has hundreds of extremely inhospitable conditions and though Cheryl covered about half of it and skipped a few terrains of snow and desert, she did not always have a choice. “The thing about hiking Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer — and yet also, like most things, so very simple — was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.”

Her account of her mother’s death, her pathos (“I howled and howled and howled, rooting my face into her body like an animal.”) is so painfully penetrating that her following chapter, equally powerful with a cluster of memories, her self-exploration and the decisive purchase of a book of PCT, barely registers in our mind.

Change of name

There are moments like when she finds her mother in the eyes of a ginger-red fox boring into hers for a good moment before the animal disappears in the woods, or when she runs her fingers over her tattoo of Lady, her horse that had to be shot right before her eyes to avoid its painful geriatric death. But the singularly dominant emotion her prose evokes when she deals with PCT details is reverence — reverence for the determinedly candid voice of hers. Treating it like a journal for confession, Cheryl admits her adultery, admits her hopeless affection for her step-father, and admits the reason for her change of name after divorce. “Cheryl Strayed I wrote repeatedly down a whole page of my journal, like a girl with a crush on a boy she hoped to marry. Only the boy didn’t exist. I was my own boy, planting a root in the very center of my rootlessness.”

When Cheryl set her foot on PCT in 1994, she had already hiked a thousand miles in her mind. Hoisting “monster,” as she calls her outrageously heavy bag that outsized the bags of her co-hikers she met at different points, she hiked the steep mountains, and thick forests, looking around for rattle snakes and mountain lions. Her body, as it was constantly shedding its toe nails and growing a “palm-sized patch on the hips that felt like a cross between tree bark and a plucked dead chicken,” refused to hike more than eight miles a day, but painfully got accustomed to 15, then eventually 20 miles. “Foot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched… The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one.”

With an average of 20 dollars and sometimes a few cents to see her through hundreds of miles, Cheryl also had poverty to fight along with many other things. Her impoverished childhood had strengthened her to walk around shop imagining buying things. “I’d reached a point where if a character in one of the novels I was reading happened to be eating, I had to skip over the scene because it simply hurt too much to read about what I wanted and couldn’t have. “

The lucidity in her description of terrain and her struggle is superlative but the lack of pictures dents the adoration for the book (a few pictures of her taken during the PCT hike are posted in the website of Oprah Winfrey, who has chosen Wild as her first selection for her re-launched Book Club). But pictures, in a way, would be redundant in chronicle of some of the most obvious certainties of life that are often forgotten.

(S. Aishwarya is a freelancer based out of the United States)

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