Cheryl Strayed is the author of Wild, a powerful new memoir of her solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that she took in her twenties following her mother’s death. Writing with great honesty and humor, Cheryl takes the reader through the chaos of grief, emerging healed and whole on the other side. We asked Cheryl about faith, fear, and wilderness on her journey.
Meet Cheryl and frequent Orion contributor Brian Doyle on September 6, in Portland, Oregon, where they’ll share conversation with Orion‘s Editor-in-Chief H. Emerson Blake. Visit orionmagazine.org/portland for more information.
Throughout your journey, you encountered situations where you had to stare down your fears. How did you deal with fear during your trip?
So often fear blots out everything else. Because something scares us, we decide not to do it. But I really, really wanted to hike on the PCT in the summer of 1995, and I wanted to do it alone. I decided to rewrite the fear narrative that tells us women need to be protected, that we are vulnerable and weak. I quite literally decided not to be afraid so I could have this big adventure. “I am not afraid” was my mantra from the very beginning. I held onto it really hard and it worked. I was mostly not afraid, though of course I occasionally felt fear.
When you divorced you legally changed your name to Strayed, a choice that you describe as “planting a root at the center of my rootlessness.” It seems like when you find the right language, you almost create a new home for yourself. How does language influence the way you think of or frame your identity?
When I write I consider every word. Language is very important to me, so I couldn’t go through life with a name that didn’t reflect my identity. When I got divorced in 1995 and decided to give myself a new last name, my life was all about redefinition. Who was I? How could I live in the world without my mother in it? What path would I forge and how would I forge it? The word strayed captured everything I was and would become.
I’m struck by the image of you on the trail after encountering a Texas longhorn bull, imagining the danger in either direction, and deciding to move forward rather than going back the way you came. How, if at all, does your resolution to move forward, reflect the way you approach your work as a writer?
That decision to move forward in the direction of my intentions is one I make every day in everything I am—writer, mother, human. Or at least I do when I’m doing my best. We all get stuck in place on occasion. We all move backwards sometimes. But moving forward is what we’re here for so I try to do it even when I’m afraid there might be a marauding bull waiting for me down the trail. Forward is the direction of real life.
What is your relationship to being in the wild now, and what was it like at the time of your journey?
I wrote in Wild that “the wilderness had a clarity that included me,” and I don’t imagine that will ever change. The wilderness has a clarity that includes all of us. Being in the wild gathers me. It astonishes me. It quiets the negative voices inside of me and allows the more constructive ones to talk. It humbles me. It reminds me of how small I am, which has the reverse effect of making me feel gigantic inside.
Ultimately, you let go of a lot of burdens in your journey (from a folding saw to the idea that you have a hole in your heart), but not your copy of Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language, which you carried with you even though you had it memorized. Can you talk about how it shaped your mindset while you were hiking?
I don’t know if I was even consciously aware of why I had to carry that book. I just had to. It felt right. It was an important book to me because it expressed a beauty and wisdom alongside a painful searchingness and struggle that I felt acutely in my twenties. I’d read it so much before my hike that the book felt to me like an old friend. Maybe I kept it because I needed a touch of company in my solitude. I still have that book, by the way, the same copy I carried with me on the PCT.
At the end of your trip you spend your last two dollars in the world on an ice cream cone. Money is a constant question on your journey, and you often depended on the generosity of others. How did you balance uncertainty and faith—in your abilities, in the people you met along the trail—in your travels?
I was constantly worried about money and often desperately wished I had more, but it’s not quite true that I depended on the generosity of others. I depended upon myself. Having said that, you’re right that other people were incredibly generous to me. At every opportunity I was generous to them, too. Generosity is a deeply embedded value of the trail—and not only on the PCT—it’s a value on any trail. I think that’s one of the reasons that hiking is such a deeply restorative experience. When we go into the wild we get to be amid the beauty of the natural landscape, but we also get to participate in the beauty the wild evokes in humans.
Kristen Hewitt is editorial assistant at Orion.