Jim Fleming: Cheryl Strayed had hiked before, she’d gone camping, but she’d never backpacked by herself. And that’s just what she did, for three months, through largely uninhabited wilderness, in the hope that it would help her come to terms with the unexpected death of her mother. Strayed writes about her time living alone in the natural world in her memoir, "Wild". She told Steve Paulsen that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail along the western coast of the United States was her way of dealing with loss when her life fell apart.
Cheryl Strayed: When I was a senior in college, my mother died very suddenly of cancer. She was 45 years old. She was a senior in college too, actually. And at that point, you know, my mother had been really my only parent. I didn’t ..I didn’t and still don’t have a relationship with my biological father. And my life unfurled. My family has really disintegrated in our grief. My siblings and my stepfather and I, even though we still loved each other, we couldn’t really hold it together as a family. And so I lost a family, my family, I was an orphan in the world. I was married at the time that my mother died. I had gotten married very young, and in my grief and sorrow I really couldn’t sustain that bond, even though I cared for my husband deeply and loved him. In retrospect, now, I can see that I was just self-destructing. I became very promiscuous sexually, I got involved with drugs, started using heroin. A boyfriend that I had connected with was a heroin addict, and I started using with him. And I was really doing a lot of things that were incredibly self-destructive. And so, when I found my self at this moment, as you say, I was at the bottom, I was standing in line at an REI outside of Minneapolis. I was working as a waitress at the time, and there had been a blizzard, and I needed to dig my truck out. And so I went to buy a shovel, and (talk about a metaphor,I had to dig myself out literally) it was then that I just saw this guidebook, and like you, I’d not heard of the Pacific Crest Trail, but I saw this book that said :The Pacific Crest Trail Volume 1: California. And I picked it up and read the back, and I was taken by the story of this trail.
Steve Paulson: Now there is an art to doing this, I’m sure. I mean, everything from getting yourself mentally together to taking along the right stuff. I mean especially, if you are travelling alone, you have to carry all of your belongings on your back. How did you get ready?
Strayed: Well I got ready by buying a bunch of stuff, like any good American. I really had never gone backpacking before. I’d gone hiking, I’d gone camping a lot, but always, you know, with my car, you know, a canoe,but this was the first time I was carrying everything. And I really read that guidebook that I mentioned before, and I bought all of the stuff that it said a backpacker needed, and I went to this little town of Mojave, California, where I really began my hike, in the Mojave Desert. And I loaded all of this stuff into my pack, and it ended up being quite a lot of stuff. Too much stuff, as it turns out. I wasn’t really mindful of weight and thinking about what it meant to carry so much stuff though the wilderness. So I really had a lot to learn. My pack,I couldn’t even lift it the first day of my hike. I couldn’t lift it a hair.
Paulson: You couldn’t lift it off the ground.
Strayed: I could not lift it. I could not budge it. I mean it was just like trying to lift a Volkswagen Beetle. It looks like you could lift it, but you can’t.
Paulson: Ok, so you’re standing in your motel room, you literally cannot lift the pack off the ground, and yet somehow, you managed to put it on your back and hoist it up.
Strayed: This is the paradox of the journey. You know, the big question I was asking, really, I think, at that time of my life, was :How do I bear this weight that I can’t bear? How do I bear what’s unbearable to me?The death of mother, and really the way my life had come undone. And so it was interesting in the form of that backpack. I had that thing presented to me in a real practical and physical way. So I did get that pack attached to my body. It wasn’t pretty how I did it, but I did it, and I walked onto the trail. And so began my 94 day trek.
Paulson: Well, and just the physical punishment you took sounds absolutely grueling. I mean, the blisters that formed on your feet, I mean, your toenails actually fell off, and then all that you had to do to make sure that you had enough to drink, for instance. I mean, you had to ration water at first because you were hiking through desert.
Strayed: That’s right. There was so much about the trail that was unexpected, but the physical trials were really, you know, so much greater than I had predicted. It’s absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically, and there was a lot of pain involved. My feet never, even after being out there three months, my feet never really adjusted to the rigors of the trail. There was always another layer of skin that could be peeled off. My body was chafed from that very heavy pack. And then also, just, I mean, I was essentially, you know, running a marathon,walking a marathon every day, back to back, for weeks on end through really rough terrain, going up and down mountains, in all sorts of weather. You know, I went out there thinking I was really going on a spiritual journey, and I went out there and had a physical trial, and it ended up being incredibly spiritually transformative.
Paulson: Because it was so physically grueling?
Strayed: I think so. I think that there is some relationship between that physical trial and what we learn about ourselves inside. I mean, I think that’s why people do things, like when they’re turning 50, they decide to run a marathon, or undertake some new adventure that has a physical element at its core. And I didn’t know that that’s what I was seeking, but it was one of the most important things that I got. It really took me out of my emotions. I’m not somebody who really represses my emotions, and so I was so sunk into my grief, and to my sense of myself of having failed in my life and my marriage, and in so many different directions,getting involved with drugs,all of those things. And so I actually didn’t need to sink deeper into those emotions. What I needed was to be taken out of them and given a new perspective, and the physical demands of the trail made me do that. I had no other choice.
Paulson: But you were making this hike alone, and there are not that many women who would take this on. And I assume that you didn’t see many other women hiking alone along the Pacific Crest Trail. Were you afraid?
Strayed: I was afraid sometimes, but mostly what I was is insistent upon the fact that I was not afraid. And I had to do that before I went out there. I decided that there was no way I was going to be able to do this alone in the wilderness if I let my imagination run away from me, and if I let myself believe the narrative that women are so often told, that, you know, we shouldn’t do things alone, we shouldn’t go places alone, that we’ll be victimized in some way. And I know that that is a reality, and many of my friends have had hard experiences, but what I really felt is I wasn’t going to let fear stop me from doing something that was important to me. And I’m so glad I didn’t. So I just told myself that I wasn’t afraid.
Paulson: What did you think about during all those times when you were alone, day after day?
Strayed: I thought about everything. I mean, I thought about things I didn’t even know I could think about. It was like, you know, things I thought I’d forgotten, I’d suddenly find myself down some lane, some memory lane, and I’d be working through,I worked through every relationship in my life. I recounted childhood experiences in my mind. I thought about songs. I sang advertising jingles. They would haunt me. Things that I didn’t even want in my head.
Paulson: Now there are a lot of times when we do mull over our life, and you know, think about things that have happened to us, and often it’s just kind of a tape that keeps repeating in our heads. And it sounds like you did some of that, but you also resolved some of these issues, or made sense of them in a way that you hadn't before. And I’m wondering how that happened.
Strayed: It’s a mystery. You know, I think that writing "Wild" was another layer of my figuring out what that trip meant to me. Writing gives you the opportunity to reflect deeply upon your experiences and what it means to be human, and all those big questions that we ask ourselves. And, you know, I think that on the trail, I learned how to accept the facts of my life, and accept the conditions of my life. Acceptance was really so key. And every day I had to accept the trail. I had to accept that my feet hurt and I still had to walk 20 miles. I had to accept that I wanted a cheeseburger and I wasn’t going to get one. I had to accept that it was 105 degrees in the water, and my water bottle was as hot as tea. And doing those things, day after day in that very simple way that I had to do them, it really gave me a deeper sense of how to accept the world without my mother in it. How to accept the fact that the father I had is not the father I would have liked to have had. And those are big, hard things. And of course it’s not like I accepted those things and then went onward and never had to think about them again, or heal them in my heart again. I have, and I think that that’s what we do as we go through life. But I did it powerfully on the PCT in the summer of 1995.
Paulson: Did you make it to your destination in the end?
Strayed: I did. I finished my hike in the little town of Cascade Locks, Oregon, which is on the banks of the Columbia River. There’s a bridge that spans the river that connects Oregon to Washington that’s called the Bridge of the Gods. And I can’t think of a better place, a more poetic place, to have ended my journey. And I walked up to it on September 15th, 1995. I touched my hand to the bridge, and then I walked down the street and got a really, really, really big ice cream cone and ate every bite. You know, so after that hike, I went off into my life and pursued my writing career with a passion, and met a partner who I love very much. I’m married to my husband, Brian, and we have two children, who are in Kindergarten and first grade. And my life feels big and whole in a way that, you know, before, as I wrote in "Wild," I felt like I was a woman with a hole in her heart.
Paulson: Well it sounds like you learned how to grieve for your mother on this trail, even though she had died four years earlier.
Strayed: Yeah. Maybe what I did is I learned how to come through maybe the most important stage of grief, which is acceptance. And which is acknowledgement that it will never be ok that my mother is dead. It will never be fine with me. But I can bear it, and we all have suffered, and we will all be made to suffer in some way in the course of our lives, and that we can go on with joy in spite of that. And I really came to grips with that on the PCT.
Fleming: Cheryl Strayed lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. She’s the author of "Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail." Steve Paulsen spoke with her.