Book review: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

Book review: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

In 1995, 27-year-old Cheryl Strayed found herself husbandless, motherless, and adrift in a sea of guilt and pain. Abandoned by her father at a young age, her mother, the very heartbeat of her life, succumbed to cancer when Cheryl was only 22. The grief overwhelmed her, sending her life into a tailspin of drugs and sexual promiscuity. But the relief these sensual balms promised never came. Thinking freedom was what she needed, she left her husband and Minnesota, heading west. But before she did, she made a trip to an outdoor adventure store and spent her meager life savings on backpacking gear. And a book: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I: California.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is an exciting outdoor adventure book. But the underlying story of spiritual growth and healing is lacking.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is an exciting outdoor adventure book. But the underlying story of spiritual growth and healing is lacking.

Wild is the story of a woman who had lost herself in other people – her mother and her husband – and desperately wanted to find herself again. It’s the story of the reckless, brave, and foolish soul-searching mission of a Minnesotan who had never set foot in the Sierra Nevada or Cascade mountain ranges of the western US, much less with a backpack on. Wild is the incredible story of a naïve and courageous woman’s solo trek up the very backbone of the untamed West from California to Oregon, crossing the finish line at the mighty Columbia River’ Bridge of the Gods. Along the way, she finds the time and space to process all that her life has become. And in those wild mountains, this wild woman finds healing.

As nature literature, there is much to enjoy in this book. Strayed’s description of the monotony, broken by episodes of chaos or joy or beauty or fear, day after day on her thousand-mile walk make it difficult to put down. Chapter after chapter set free butterflies in my stomach as I imagined myself in her situation. If you love nature, or the Sierras or Cascades, or simply hiking, then the outdoor adventure retold in this book will thrill your every nerve.

As a commentary on a journey of spiritual and personal growth, Wild leaves something to be desired. Strayed’s life was, by her own admission, a disaster. And she may have made a great decision by distancing herself from it and pouring herself into something visceral, something that demanded every ounce of her attention for her very survival. But voluntary trials and immense aesthetic beauty are insufficient for deep, lasting healing. Though she didn’t know it, the Source of all healing was staring her in the face: the Creator of this amazing nature in which she was immersed. Though she attempts to write the final chapter in a tone of triumph, I couldn’t help but grieve for her. She came all this way and didn’t change all that deeply. Not really.

WARNING: Wild is not for those easily offended. Strayed uses the F— word judiciously, and her drug use and sexual escapades are described in painstaking detail. While I cannot comment directly on the film since I have not seen it, reviews I have read suggest that it is just as graphic as the book.

Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Print. ISBN-13: 978-0307476074

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About Dave Cummings

Dave Cummings is a husband, father of three, college professor, biologist, and urban outdoorsman. Most importantly, he is a Christ follower.
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