“I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I came from or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.”
—Cheryl Strayed, Wild, p 69.
Cheryl Strayed and I both moved permanently to Oregon in the Summer of 1995, but we took very different paths. I journeyed the way most travelers do, up I-5 at 70 mph. I made the trip twice—first a round trip in June for the Bach Festival, and a second a one-way trip in in August with all my possessions crammed in my car.
Strayed traveled on foot, following the Pacific Crest Trail from Mojave to the Bridge of the Gods east of Portland, only bypassing the section of the High Sierras socked in by record snowfall. She carried everything on her back, in a huge pack she dubbed Monster.
My drives took two days each, while her hike took a hundred. But it we both faced a similar, life changing decision that summer: to go back to the life we knew or go forward to the life unknown. We both went forward.
Wild is a book about moving forward, one step at a time through grief, pain, and exhaustion. It’s a book about a pilgrimage. A story of a part-time hermit, always on the move, seeking solitude in the vastness of the Sierra and Cascade ranges.
Despite the difference in setting, it reminds me of Annie Dillard’s magnificent Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which like Wild finds both the unspeakable terror and unspeakable beauty of the Holy in the wildness of nature. It’s a book about death and resurrection. It’s about letting go and about holding on all at the same time. It’s a whirling, beautiful contradiction, like life and like all great writing.
On the way, she meets many other hikers and strikes up an immediate bond with each of them. But most of her hike is spent in solitude, as she relives all the tragic events that brought her to this life-changing walk along the spine of the Sierra and Cascade ranges. She interweaves her past and present struggles skillfully and through the pages of the book the reader slowly comes to know Strayed as she comes to know herself. Step by step, day by day, always one foot in front of the other until she reaches her goal—the Columbia River and the aptly named Bridge of the Gods.
Along the trail Strayed read many books, and burned most of them afterwards to save weight. The one she carried the whole way—in her pack and in her heart—was a collection of poems by Adrienne Rich titled The Dream of a Common Language. This title serves as the name of her last chapter, but she could have easily called her whole book The Dream of a Common Geography. It’s not quite as catchy as Wild, but it’s still true. The power of place is real. The landscape may be silent, yet it speaks through the experience of living with it and crossing over it. Though I have never hiked the trail myself, and at my age I never will, I have felt a similar connection with my surroundings at key times in my life too, and never more than since I moved to the Northwest.
It is the dream of a common geography that links us, despite our different paths, to a common goal, and links everyone drawn by a desire to walk beyond themselves in order to find themselves. Wild chronicles one such walk, and does so beautifully, but there are countless others.