'Wild' Author Cheryl Strayed Talks Gear, Loss and Redemption
Published on 04/22/2013
When Cheryl Strayed, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, was 22 years old, she was grief stricken after the loss of her mother to cancer and began heading down a path of self-destruction. She was having sex with random men and using heroin, while her marriage crumbled and her family drifted away. Four years later in a stroke of part insanity and part complete genius, she decided to embark on a three-month solo mission to hike over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Without a single night of backpacking experience, hiking shoes that were a little bit too small and an obese pack she nicknamed Monster, she set off to test her limits, face her demons and find strength. Her book is raw, poignant and personal, and you are right with her through every sunrise and blistered step, her joy and her sorrow. AJ had a chance to interview Strayed about her triumphs, her gear and the extraordinary freedom of being in the wild.
Q: You decided to hike the PCT at what you call ‘the bottom of your life.’ Can you describe what was going on in your life and why it inspired you to set off on your journey?
I think that there were a number of things came together for me at that moment that I decided to hike the PCT, and by moment I really mean that era. The first was the very plain and ordinary fact that I was in my mid-twenties, and like many people in their mid-twenties I was uncertain of so many different aspects of my life. I was exploring a lot of things and trying to figure out what my path was, and in the midst of trying to answer all those questions that everyone has to answer as they become an adult, essentially the rug was pulled out from under me. My mother died very suddenly when was 22; I was a senior in college. She died over the spring break of my senior year. She actually had gone to college too, it was her senior year too. She was 45 years old, she found out she had cancer, and seven weeks later to the day she died. It was really this day that split my life in two. There was the world with my mother in it and there was the world without my mother. I didn’t know how to live in the world without my mother, and when I lost my mom, it wasn’t just that I’d lost this extraordinary human being who loved me unconditionally, and passionately and with great heart, her absence put in to stark contrast that I didn’t have a dad too. My father had been in my life only the first five or six years of my life and after that I had very limited contact with him. All of my interactions with him when he had been in my life and when he contacted me later were not positive. He was and is an abusive person. I always coped with the absence of my dad by just taking solace in the fact that I had such a good mom. I was 22, the age that you are allegedly grown up, but we all know at that age you still have so much growing up to do and you still need your parents. Here I was very alone in the world, an orphan, and trying to figure out who I was, and I made a lot of bad decisions. I started in some ways to rage against my mother’s death and express my sorrow through self-destruction. I started to be really promiscuous with lots of people. There’s nothing wrong with promiscuity; I think at certain times it can actually be a healthy and fun thing, but it got to the point where it was almost a way of erasing myself, an anti-intimacy. I was married at the time to someone I loved, and the things that I did and the deception that I engaged in was very much contrary to who I really was and what my values were. So it was painful to me to admit to myself that I had done these things, and admit to him and eventually break up with him. I was getting divorced, I was seriously grieving my mom and I didn’t really know how to heal my heart and how to go forward without her. In some ways I felt that going forward without my mom was to dishonor her, because if I loved her I would just not be able to go forward. Of course that was the young woman thinking, now I know what my mom would want more than anything was for me to thrive. Everything in my life was going wrong (even my writing, I knew I was a writer at that point) given all the distractions of the sex and the drugs. I started using heroin, I met a man who was using heroin and I tried it and I didn’t really sink in to full-on addiction, but I was certainly going down that path. It really put me in a spiral: why am I even here? What’s my purpose on the earth? Who would care if I died? It was in the era that I decided by chance to hike this trail. I found out that I was pregnant and I didn’t want to be and that was finally the last straw. I went to REI in a blizzard because I needed a shovel, so I went to buy a foldable shovel, and when I was standing in line to buy it I saw this guidebook that was called the Pacific Crest Trail Volume One – California. I had never heard of the PCT before. I didn’t even really know there was such a thing as a thru hike or a long distance hike. I picked up the book and just read the description. I had been an avid day hiker; I think that gets lost a little bit when people talk about my journey. I was an outdoorsy person and a hiker, I had just never gone on a backpacking trip. I just thought that this sounded like something big enough, and grand enough, and magnificent enough that maybe if I just went out there and did that, that it would get me back on course.
Q: What were some of your major struggles on the trail?
My major struggles on the trail were very physical. Like a lot of novice backpackers, I took too much stuff – that’s a really common experience. Some people have criticized me by saying, “Oh, she didn’t plan.” One thing to remember was that I actually did nothing but plan for four or five months before my hike, but it’s also true that there are some things I had to learn the hard way, and one of them is that weight matters when it comes to backpacking - it matters a lot. I didn’t quite realize that. It was 1995 and it was really just the beginning of people being conscious of ultralight backpacking. I mean, it was on the trail that I heard the name Ray Jardine and heard this whole idea of ultralight backpacking. Now you find far more people who adhere to those values and do that sort of thing. I was just coming into the backpacking world, and because I wasn’t steeped in that world it was news to me. I got a big old backpack. My thinking was, ‘Buy the biggest backpack so you can take the most stuff, because after all, I’m going to be out there by myself.’ Well, it turns out that taking the most stuff is very painful, because you actually have to carry it on your back, up and down mountains and through all kinds of weather. I was carrying an incredibly heavy pack, really just dangerously heavy. I mean the only reason I didn’t genuinely injure myself was that I was 26 years old and not 46 years old. Everywhere my pack made contact with my body I was blistered and bleeding and had welts. My boots were also very troublesome - I hadn’t really broken them in before my hike. I’d worn them around a bit but I hadn’t done any major hiking in them, and they never quite fit my feet. First of all, they were too small, but even once I got a new pair midway through my hike, they were just not quite the right boots for my feet, so my feet suffered. Anyone who’s gone hiking knows once your feet start to go downhill you really need to fix that problem soon because they’ll only get worse, and that’s what happened. By the end of my hike I lost six toenails in a very painful process. Here I was out there for three months and on my last day of hiking I still got new blisters.
Q: Can you pinpoint your most profound realization on your trip? You had a lot of ‘aha’ moments.
Well I think it’s always so hard to say ‘the moment’ because I think that the most profound realizations that I had on the trail come from an accumulation of smaller moments; many that I didn’t even recognize at the time were ‘aha’ moments. Let’s say it was one of those days where I was really by and large miserable on the trail, and I spent the day wishing I were elsewhere. I get to the end of the day and I’m making dinner and I’m exhausted, and I’m eating my depressing dinner and I’m watching the sun set and it’s so beautiful. The feeling I’m having is, ‘Ok, this day was hard but I made it through.’ When you have a bunch of those days, as you do on any long trial, that is a very, very profound ‘aha,’ because what it teaches you can face adversity and you can be resilient. You can move and be successful even outside the comfort zone. It’s character building, it’s strength building and it’s something that no one can ever take from you. I understand why some people quit hard things. I’m not saying that’s not ever a good choice - sometimes it’s, like, okay if you are so unhappy, let’s just stop - but if every time something is hard you quit, you never get to experience yourself as a strong resilient person. You think back and say, ‘Well that was hard so I quit.’ You never get to look back and say, ‘Well that was hard and I kept going.’ I think the more experiences you can have, whether they be physical: out in the wilderness or doing some kind of physical sport or adventure, or personal: you persevere in a relationship or while your giving birth to your baby or writing a book, anything where you have to preserve, one builds on the next, one strength makes you stronger for the next strength, and I really learned that in a big way.
Q: You did this trip alone, which situation was the hairiest for you?
Definitely, when I ran out of water on the Half Creek Rim, which is in California. I thought that there was going to be a water source at a point in my hike and it just so happens that it was an incredibly hot day and a famously difficult stretch of that trail that doesn’t have much shade at all, and I drank that last of my water and there I was. I had no water and I had to hike another five miles further on to the next water source and I wasn’t even sure that there would be water there given the vagaries of ponds that dry up in the summer and such. That was the one I recognized as potentially life-threating. It’s a really vulnerable feeling to be out in the wilderness without any water, carrying a pack and knowing that in each direction that you go there’s just more wilderness. It wasn’t like there wasn’t somebody nearby that I could appeal to. That was scary. I did get to that pond and I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful in my life. It was this horrible muddy pond, and you would never under any circumstances think that you would drink that water, but to me it was the only game in town and I drank it happily, greedily.
Q: What was the wisest piece of backpacking advice you picked up from someone on the trail?
I learned a lot from other backpackers. Obviously the weight thing, I understood weight in a way that I didn’t before. One thing I remember discussing out on the trail were my feet troubles, people would look at my feet and we’d discuss my feet. Of course I got hiking boots because I was like, ‘I’m hiking so I have to get hiking boots.’ Someone I met said, “Why don’t you get a good pair of running shoes and just hike in running shoes?” I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to do that, because I’m hiking so I need hiking boots.’ Now, since my PCT hike, I’ll hike in running shoes, and I’ll always remember that guy telling me that. It was funny because I was locked into the idea that if you are doing this activity you need this kind of shoe or this kind of gear, instead of going outside that box and thinking what are the shoes that actually work the best of me? What are the most comfortable shoes? It turned out to be running shoes that are one size bigger than the size I normally wear, so that’s what I’ll usually go hiking in now. That was a good piece of advice, to not always stick with conventional practices and conventionalism, and really sick with what works for you. I think now it’s actually become a lot more common, I see a lot of backpackers hiking in running shoes.
Q: You used a lot of gear on your journey. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. What was your best piece of gear?
That was the thing that was so cool, I write about this in Wild, the way that the gear itself almost has the qualities of a person, either you love them or you hate them or you’re indifferent. My water filter was always annoying to me because it was so hard to pump; I was always grumpy about my water filter. My backpack, as heavy as it was, felt like a companion, I even gave it a nickname: Monster. I had this wonderful relationship with Monster; it was like my friend. I always say my favorite piece of gear was my sleeping bag. I got this Sierra Designs bag that was designed specifically for women. In 1995 that was a really novel idea: making something specifically designed to meet the needs of a female body as opposed to using the male body as the standard. I loved that sleeping bag; it kept me warm in all kinds of weather. I still have it. I think it was called the Annie Oakley. They had two different sleeping bags in two different temperatures named after strong women. So part of it was just that when I was in my sleeping bag it meant that I was all snuggled in, and I didn’t have to have my shoes on and be hiking. Honestly, I was outside for three months, sometimes I slept under a roof but not very often. One of the things I felt strongly about was I loved to have just that little bit of shelter. It was like that with my North Face tent: to be in my sleeping bag inside my tent, it felt like there was this little world where I could kind of shut off and shut out the rest of this big vast wild world. I loved being in that wild world but sometimes I needed to feel like I was retreating or in a cocoon. Both of those, the sleeping bag and the tent allowed me that sense of cocooning, separateness, safety and warmth, all those very nurturing things. So I would say that those two pieces of gear were great. And of course, I can’t leave out my headlamp – it was a Petzl headlamp – loved it. I would just go crazy on some stretches of trail when the batteries would wear out and I wouldn’t have brought extra ones. I loved it because it allowed me to sit in my little cocoon and read my books, which I loved desperately.
Q: What do you consider your biggest triumph on your journey? Did you accomplish what you set out to do?
I think that I stuck with it. One of the things I always say to people when I talk about the experience is there are many people who have hiked further than me and better than me. Wild isn’t about, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m the best hiker in the universe or the strongest backpacker,' or 'Look at me I did this thing that is more incredible than anyone else.’ That’s not true at all, I never wrote it from that perspective or perceived the experience from that perspective. And yet, what I was really trying to say is, I did this big thing that was a challenge and was hard for me, and I did it. So that triumph for me was very simple and private and a triumph that doesn’t feel showoffy, but rather it was something that I felt very proud of. I had done something right and accomplished something that was difficult to accomplish. The experience is like a secret that I’ll always know, and I’ll always carry around with me that sense of achievement. It’s not an achievement that can be compared to anyone else’s achievement, it’s like, ‘I did this thing, and it was powerful to me.’ Sometimes people read Wild and say, "Now I want to hike the PCT," which I think is great and I hope they do. But it could be anything, it could be someone who never exercises or goes hiking and decides to go hiking one day a week. I think that’s awesome, we’re always running the race against ourselves. In this case of the hike for me, I really went the distance, and that felt life changing.