Author Cheryl Strayed has lived up to her name. Self-described as “an ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next,” Cheryl is also a soul pioneer. When life beats her to a pulp, Cheryl responds by leaving her old existence behind. With a fire in her spirit and wanderlust in her heart, she packs up her camping gear and begins her solo journey across the 2,663-mile expanse known as the Pacific Crest Trail.
A Hike Across Land and MourningWhat spurs Cheryl on is the death of her mother, who is stricken with lung cancer despite her health nut lifestyle. With an acerbic rage and sharp wit, the author recounts all the ways in which she failed herself and her mother. Every painful memory is narrated with a no-nonsense tone. Sexuality, agnosticism, and apathy are all fully explored and laid bare. In the California wilderness, all emotions roam freely.
Over the next three months, Cheryl shoulders her grief, casual promiscuity, and hope for redemption as she braves the PCT. The few travelers she crosses paths with are equally as charming, astray, and determined to find themselves. At one point, Cheryl is picked up by a journalist and interviewed after being mistaken for a vagabond. Clearly Strayed is willing to have her identity stripped away and melded into a new form over and over again.
This is a trek through both the uncertainty of the present and the devastation of the past. In one particularly haunting recollection, Cheryl and her mother’s widower decide to put the family’s beloved American Saddlebred, Lady, down due to her being in a terribly malnourished state. The merciful gesture goes awry. Cheryl panics. Her siblings abandon her. After the tears, Cheryl and her estranged husband, Paul, try to view Lady’s drawn-out execution as a ceremonial send off for Cheryl’s mother. Even so, the horror and bloodshed of Lady’s slow death lingers long after. Loss is a visceral ripple through the human spirit.
For every broken blister, discarded boot, and treacherous impass through the mountains, there is an equally moving glimpse of the future. Cheryl consumes part of her mother’s ashes. She decides to forgive herself for having numerous affairs. These moments of unbridled rebirth are all stunningly realized in details that mirror the mighty sights and sounds of the PCT. Mother nature herself is tender and tough in equal measures. I found myself stirred by the poignancy of this hard fact time and time again. It’s one readers like myself can learn not to retreat from, either.