I was made aware about “Wild” in a very brief paragraph in Outside magazine, which stated that Knopf believed that they could sell 100,000 hard bound copies of this book. What was not revealed in the article was the extent of the media blitz that would accompany the book’s release. Within the next several days, I was approached by a half dozen people who asked me if had heard of the book. One woman I barely knew plunked down a clipping of a Boston Globe newspaper review in front of me. She knew me as a hiker. Next, I heard an interview with Ms. Strayed on National Public Radio. The publicity machine was cranking. When I went to Amazon to check it out, the book had not even been released yet, but there were already numerous positive review of the book on the web site.
Never witnessed before was this level of national publicity of a book about backpacking that preceded a publication date. The closest anyone came to generating this much hiker buzz was Bill Bryson, whose A Walk In The Woods account of his aborted thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail entertained America to no end. In that account , Bryson may have even invented the sidekick character Katz, who oafed along as a fat, unprepared, untrained, bad judgement machine.
I have read some half- dozen books about thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and published my own thru-hike account of the PCT in 2010. I expected this account to be similar until a few details were laid out.
First, Ms. Strayed’s hike was achieved in 1995, and wasn’t a 2700 mile thru hike, but a section of 1100 miles, from Tehachapi, CA to the Bridge of the Gods, a metallic structure spanning the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.
I expected to read about the perils and challenges of a novice hiker, beginning with her initial bad decision in picking the hottest and windiest little town on the whole PCT to start one’s hike. The book can be viewed as a compendium of bad decisions, but it is more than that.
When one reads an account of a long distance backpacking trip, it becomes quickly apparent that the author had better be exceedingly funny, perceptive, detailed, or else. The “or else” part is all the boring stuff that surrounds an activity where one wakes up in the morning in a desolate setting, puts on the same exact clothes that have been worn for the past several months, eats the same unimaginative meals, and moves along some 20-25 miles a day though repetitively picturesque countrysides.
Backpacking accounts are, well, mostly about backpacking.
A considerable part of this story invokes Ms. Strayed’s life before the hike, which focused on her mother’s premature death from cancer, failed marriage, divorce, sexual encounters, and heroin addiction, in non-sequential and revolving order. The book is a series of illustrations of what can simply be described as a woeful lack of common sense in a woman who is vastly superior at writing than she is at generating practical decisions. Ms. Strayed had changed her name to suit her style, but may Wanda Wild might have been a better fit for her.
The reader is advised to keep several historical aspects in mind. First and foremost is the fact that Ms. Strayed was hiking seventeen years ago, a time that was pre-iPhone, and pre-Facebook, when information about the PCT was limited and difficult to locate. Also, few people had completed the PCT, so there weren’t many folks to lead the way. The ultralight backpacking revolution had not yet taken hold, as Ray Jardine’s Beyond Backpacking had it’s initial release in 1993, and was just gathering momentum at that time. In it, Jardine’s throws out just about every commandment from the Hiker’s Catechism as he pares his own pack down to a seven pound load and launches a new way of doing things.
“Wild” takes some 50 pages to get to the first hiking parts when Ms. Strayed attempts to lift an 8 pound backpack that contains 14 days of food (28 pounds) and two gallons of water (16 pounds). That’s 52 pounds, before the saw, binoculars, folding chair, camera flash, multiple books, deodorant, and roll of condoms is stuffed in there. Add the clothes.. Got to be 70-80 pounds on her back!
Ms. Strayed shares with us periodic reports of her very own and inevitable blisters (upon blisters), pain centers, bleeding and bruised body parts, in intimate detail, as she moves, mostly alone, through a footpath that advances her toward her graduation from a school of some very hard knocks.
I found the book overburdened by the background story of Ms. Strayed train wreck of a life. Make no mistake, the book is brutally direct, Strayed’s observations are fresh and often funny, and she is an accomplished writer. Strayed’s description of the sanctity and solace of her evening retreats into her tent are among the best I’ve every seen conveyed in print.
However, I approached it as a hiking-obsessed male who truly enjoys witnessing the transformation of personality as one engages in step one and progresses to the five millionth step on that majestic path. So I read the book a second time, starting on page 50 to the end, skipping the frequent references to experiences with old lovers, parents, step parents, and pets, as I attempted to stick with the trail talk. That definitely shortened the book.
Did Ms. Strayed learn anything from her hike? I think she did. How could you not? She learned to push away fear, released buckets of pent-up tears, and focused on just moving forward. The wilderness is a truth crucible.
I trust she learned how to avoid bleeding from her shoulders to her toes so that her next backpacking trips would be easier.
POSTSCRIPT: Reese Witherspoon is slated to produce and star in director Lisa Cholodenko’s adaptation of Strayed’s “Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Chodolenko will write and direct, while Strayed will consult as the script is developed, and will be an associate producer on the film. From Rotten Tomatoes: “Lisa Cholodenko made her mark on the independent film scene with her moody examination of sexuality, ambition, and heroin chic in High Art (1998)”.
Seems like a good fit.