Friday, 26 September 2014

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The Penguin and I have been on a huge bush walk over the last couple of days.  We went with author Cheryl Strayed from the Mojave Desert on foot in California all the way north through the mountain ranges of California and Oregon to the Washington State border.
 For the first time in a long time I was reading a book that I didn't want to end.  Cheryl is remembering a time 20 years earlier after her mother died, her father left the family when they were tiny and her grief was really messing up her life.  Her stepfather who they had been close to disappeared pretty much after her mother died, she lost touch with her siblings as they dealt with their grief in various ways and she became quite promiscuous and entered the drug culture.

In order to get her life in order and get to know herself better she decided to hike the 1100 mile Pacific Crest Trail on the west coast of the United States.

I really enjoyed this book.  It has serious undertones to it but it is amazing because she was the least prepared hiker I have ever come across.  Her boots are too small. She doesn't learn to use her water purifier until she is on the trail. Her back pack is the size of a small "volkswagon beetle" as she describes it.  It really is absolutely amazing that she attempts this trail at all.  There is beauty and danger on the trail but I think the most danger she faces is simply dealing with herself and her past memories of her grief over her mother who died of cancer in her 40's, her heroin usage, her failed marriage. The idea of walking this trail came to her when she saw the guidebook  in a queue at the store.

Cheryl seems to have lived her life to this point having no idea what direction she is going.  What I enjoyed the most are the books she put in her collection box at certain points along the trail.

She and her mother were studying English and literature in university together when her mother
became ill.  She had a love of reading, she met beautiful people along the way and had such interesting times, moods and thoughts.

While reading on the trail she would burn the pages once finished because of the weight of the books.
They were old paperback copies (not Folio editions) so that didn't bother me too much.
I enjoyed what she took from the books as she applied their lessons and the lessons of such strenuous hiking to her life.

If there was anything I would improve in this book is perhaps she dwelled a bit too much on her family grief but then on the other hand the reason for the trek and the book was to deal with it.  She had to immerse herself in it and the flashbacks were quite enlightening as to what she had to go through.

I almost didn't read this book because it was one of Oprah's books.  I am totally turned off by this because Oprah always acts (to me) that the book and experiences were her ideas and she has to immerse herself in the whole concept.  But as this was  a library book and there was only mention of Oprah once on the sticker on the front of the book I got over it.  Travel literature is one my most favourite genres but it has to be adventurous, the people realistic and the dilemmas interesting.

I learned a lot about the mountains of California, the trail and the changes in weather in this book.  She did her research so this wasn't just a "oh poor me" book.

Some of the books she read along the track were: The Pacific Crest Trail Vol I and II, Staying Found: The Complete Map and Compass Handbook (she didn't learn to use the compass until she needed it); The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor which she then traded for James Michener's The Novel.

She went through Margaret Drabble's A Summer Bird Cage, Nabokov's Lolita and James Joyce's The Dubliners. There were others but too many to list here. They are listed in an appendix at the back of the book.

The other thing she did that I liked is the Afterword at the end told what happened to her and the friends she met on the trail over the next 20 years.

The suspense of reaching several destinations to see if her posted box was waiting for her got to be quite high at times.  As she often had no money or food by the time she picked them up we worried for her.  This woman is a survivor and though it is short of a miracle that some of her experiences didn't kill her she did in fact become very strong.  I won't spoil it with the things that happened whilst on the track.

For a non fiction book I found I was completely immersed in Wild but then I love this type of  adventure. Others may not feel the same. I love living vicariously through others as they traverse the globe either walking, bicycling, on horseback or motorbike.  I have read a lot of travel books over the years and I would rank this one quite high.

If you've read this I'd love to know what you thought of the trip and what you thought of Cheryl also.

An except at the beginning as she packs her bags and telling us about the things she is to put in it:

There was a blue compression sack that held the clothes I wasn't already wearing- a pair of fleece pants, a long sleeved thermal shirt, a thick fleece anorak with a hood, two pair of wool socks and two pair of underwear, a thin pair of gloves, a sunhat, a fleece hat and rain pants- and another sturdier sack called a dry bag, packed to the gills with all the food I'd need over the  next fourteen days before I reached my first resupply stop at a place called Kennedy Meadows. 

There was a sleeping bag and a camp chair that could be unclipped to use as a sleeping pad and a headlamp like the kind miners wear and five bungee cords. There was a water purifier and a tiny collapsible stove, a tall aluminium canister of gas and a little pink lighter. There was a small cooking pot nested inside a larger cooking pot and utensils that folded in half and a cheap pair of sports sandals I intended to wear in camp at the end of each day. There was a quick-dry pack towel, a thermometer keychain, a tarp and a insulated plastic mug with a handle. 

There was a snakebite kit and a Swiss army knife, a miniature pair of binoculars in a fake leather zip up case and a coil of fluorescent coloured rope, a compass I hadn't yet learned how to use and a book that would teacher me how to use the compass called Staying Found that I intended to read on the plane to L.A. but hadn't. There was a first aid kit in a pristine red canvas case that snapped shut and a roll of toilet paper in a ziplock bag and stainless steel trowel that had its own bleach sheath that said U-Dig-It on the front. 

There was a small bag of toiletries and personal items I thought I'd need along the way- shampoo and conditioner, soap and lotion and deodora t, nail clippers and insect repellent and sunscreen, a hairbrush and a natural menstrual sponge, and a tube of waterproof sunblock lip balm. There was a flashlight and a metal candle lantern with a votive candle inside and extra candle and foldable saw- for what, I did not know- and a green nylon bag with my tent inside. There were two 32 oz plastic water bottles and a dromedary bag capable of holding 2.6 gallons of water and a nylon fist that unfurled into a rain cover for my backpack and a Gore-Tex ball that opened up to become my raincoat. There were other things I brought in case the other things I brought failed- extra batteries, a box of waterproof matches, a Mylar blanket and a bottle of iodine pills.  

There were two pens and three books in addition to Staying Found: The Pacific Crest Trail, Vol I, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language. There was an 8 x 11 200 page hardback sketch book that I used as a journal and a ziplock bag with my driver's license inside and a s mall wad of chas, a sheaf of postage stamps and a tiny spiral notebook with the addresses of friends scraped on a few pages. 

There was a full sized professional quality 35 millimetre Minolta x-700 camera with a separate attachable flash and a tiny collapsible tripod, all of which was packed inside a padded camera case the size of a football.  

What was so laughable about  this she does get everything in or on her pack. She never thought about where all this would go until she was in the motel room the morning of her departure and it was all on her bed.  Also once everything is packed to carry for the next 3 months she cannot lift the pack off the ground.  I was in stitches laughing at this conundrum and you'll just have to read the book to see how she manages it all.

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