To Cheryl Strayed wannabes thinking of the PCT: hiking is not a cure-all

I got in touch with my inner 45-year-old woman and absolutely tore through Wild by Cheryl Strayed over the weekend. I found it a very enjoyable read, much better than I was anticipating. As a friend suggested to me before I read it, its main strength, aside from solid writing on a sentence-to-sentence level, is its editing. It's perfectly paced: it never beats the dead horse, so to speak, about any of the main plot arcs—the mom, the hike, the drugs, the dudes. The structure of the book as a whole is so tidy; fifteen years of retrospect and a good editor have really helped distill it (this may also explain why people who publish their own hiking memoirs on a shoestring in close proximity to their hike tend to create such uneven works).

But I have a big problem with the story. It's not that she went out grossly unprepared for hiking—that's pretty common both in hiking literature and in real life. It should be fairly obvious to anyone, experienced hiker or not, that this resulted in abject physical and mental misery on the trail, and it's a nice cautionary tale in that regard for everybody. Every Cheryl wannabe who reads the book and decides to go on a hike is going to think twice about their gear choices, because the descriptions of the blisters, random pains and her overall exhaustion are pretty lurid. At first I was put off by how these sections are written in a slightly lighthearted tone, because in my experience, hiking in pain is your WORLD when you are out there and it really doesn't seem funny at the time. Later I decided that this levity was a result of a) the author having fifteen years of retrospect from which to look back and laugh, b) relatively speaking, the blisters etc. are still not as serious of a problem as the ones from her outside life, and c) it keeps the entire book from being one huge downer. It's easy for any experienced hiker to tut-tut when they read about her preparation, call her an idiot or whatever, but who cares? We were all like that at some point.

My real problem with the book is the central conceit that one, few-month-long hike can be a panacea for anyone. It says it right in the title: From Lost to Found on the PCT. She went on this hike and, after a series of identifiable and discrete transition points, she was totally rehabilitated! How convenient! There is no afterword that says, "This hike was the first of many steps in the 180 that I was able to accomplish regarding the direction of my life." No, the hike was everything: she was fed into the PCT machine a depressive nymphomaniac heroin junkie, and got spat out at the Columbia River happy, sage and responsible. I am not at all denying that a long adventure can significantly change someone, even for the better; I just think it's unlikely that 3 months and 1100 miles on the PCT apparently fixed everything for her.

The last few paragraphs are careful to note that, as she finished, she didn't know any of this at the time, which is good—it would be even more delusional for someone to get to the end of a few months of journeying and say that they knew right then exactly how they'd changed. The most you can say while you are participating in any adventure is that it is novel and, well, adventurous. You can't determine its sub-surface effect on you without a hefty buffer period of retrospection. But the book does make it seem that, even after that period of retrospection, she has determined that the hike was the cure-all in her life. Now I don't know Cheryl Strayed; she might very well be telling the precise truth, instead of artfully presenting the truth to make it fit into the type of narrative that sells millions of books (which is what I've implied so far). But even if this hike really did rehabilitate her perfectly, that's not going to be the case for 90% of the people who go out to replicate her feat. If you're tired of your own flaws and think that a few months on the AT or PCT is going to fix them right away, you've probably got another thing coming. You'll get back and realize after awhile that those flaws might have been temporarily suppressed, but don't really disappear. People just don't change that much that quickly.

This has been Scrub's self-help session. Now go back and eat that brownie you passed up earlier—might as well do it now because you'll never change and you can't resist it, you FATASS! HAHAHA! No, just kidding. I do hold out hope for people who go on adventures for rehabilitative purposes. It's just that, in my worldview, things are never as tidy as this particular ~non-fiction~ book makes them out to be. I'm going out on the PCT in a week and a half not because it's going to make me a better person; heck, I might come back even worse, more maladaptive to the real world than I already am. I'm going because it's fun: I like walking, I like journeys, I like places I've never been, I like new people, I like the West, etc., etc. It's going to be novel and exciting if nothing else. IF it does more for me ... well, I'll figure that out much later. I don't care if a few hundred lost sheep read Wild and decide to stray out onto the PCT this year or in the future; I just hope they go out with grounded expectations about the inherent value of hiking trips.