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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Oprah's Book Club 2.0)
by Cheryl Strayed

Published: 2012
Paperback : 0 pages
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Oprah's Book Club 2.0 selection. A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe-and built her back up again. At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's ...
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Oprah's Book Club 2.0 selection. A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe-and built her back up again. At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State-and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than "an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise." But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone. Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

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Discussion Questions

1. “The Pacific Crest Trail wasn’t a world to me then. It was an idea, vague and outlandish, full of promise and mystery. Something bloomed inside me as I traced its jagged line with my finger on a map” (p. 4). Why did the PCT capture Strayed’s imagination at that point in her life?

2. Each section of the book opens with a literary quote or two. What do they tell you about what’s to come in the pages that follow? How does Strayed’s pairing of, say, Adrienne Rich and Joni Mitchell (p. 45) provide insight into her way of thinking?

3. Strayed is quite forthright in her description of her own transgressions, and while she’s remorseful, she never seems ashamed. Is this a sign of strength or a character flaw?

4. “I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told” (p. 51). Fear is a major theme in the book. Do you think Strayed was too afraid, or not afraid enough? When were you most afraid for her?

5. Strayed chose her own last name: “Nothing fit until one day when the word strayed came into my mind. Immediately, I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine . . . : to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress” (p. 96). Did she choose well? What did you think when you learned she had assigned this word to herself—that it was no coincidence?

6. On the trail, Strayed encounters mostly men. How does this work in her favor? What role does gender play when removed from the usual structure of society?

7. What does the reader learn from the horrific episode in which Strayed and her brother put down their mother’s horse?

8. Strayed writes that the point of the PCT “had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets” (p. 207). How does this sensation help Strayed to find her way back into the world beyond the wilderness?

9. On her journey, Strayed carries several totems. What does the black feather mean to her? And the POW bracelet? Why does she find its loss (p. 238) symbolic?

10. Does the hike help Strayed to get over Paul? If so, how? And if not, why?

11. Strayed says her mother’s death “had obliterated me. . . . I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill” (p 267). How did being on the PCT on her mother’s fiftieth birthday help Strayed to heal this wound?

12. What was it about Strayed that inspired the generosity of so many strangers on the PCT?

13. “There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. . . . But I was pretty certain as I sat there that night that if it hadn’t been for Eddie, I wouldn’t have found myself on the PCT” (p. 304). How does this realization change Strayed’s attitude towards her stepfather?

14. To lighten her load, Strayed burns each book as she reads it. Why doesn’t she burn the Adrienne Rich collection?

15. What role do books and reading play in this often solitary journey?

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Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed

Wild charts your 1100 mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 when you were twenty-six. What made you decide to write about this part of your life now?

I always knew my hike on the PCT was important to me as person, but I only recently thought the power of that experience might translate onto the page. I teach memoir on occasion and the question I'm always pushing my students to answer in their work is not what happened, but what it means. I think that's why it took me more than a decade to begin writing about my hike. I had to figure out what it meant. I couldn't do that until I'd lived a while beyond it; until I'd moved solidly out of the era of my life that I write about in Wild. At its core Wild is a story about a woman figuring out how she's going to live in the world given the facts of her life—some which are painful. I couldn't tell the story about how that woman figured it out until she really had.

How did you get the idea to hike the PCT?

My first impulse was not specifically about hiking the PCT or even going backpacking, but rather the deep and simple desire to do something hard in the wilderness. My life had pretty much bottomed out at the moment I decided to hike the PCT. I was as far away from being a wilderness trekker as you can imagine, and yet I had a gut sense that time alone in the wilderness would cure what ailed me, or at least it would set me again on the right path. It was sheer chance that I happened to be standing in line at REI near Minneapolis when I spotted a guidebook about hiking the California section of the PCT on a nearby shelf. I didn't buy it the day I first saw it. I skimmed the book, then left the store. But later I returned and bought it. That guidebook is one of many books that have changed my life for the better. Once it was in my hands, I never looked back.

You began your trip with so much weighing on you—your mother's death; the unraveling of your marriage; the question of where your life was headed. As you write, the hope was to get "back to the person I used to be—strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good." No small burden to attach to the trip. What made you think this journey would hold the answers?

I didn't know my journey would hold any answers, but I was out of solutions. I wasn't getting them in any of the other places I was looking. In some ways, my decision to hike the PCT was nothing more than running away to a place where no one could reach me, where I'd be far away from the sources of my greatest sorrows and consequences of my mistakes. But in other ways, I was running toward something too, and I knew it instinctually even then. I'd grown up in the woods of northern Minnesota, a land that's beloved to me. My faith in the silence and wonder of the wild places feels as if it's written in my blood. So that's where I went. The PCT was a foreign land to me then, but it was also something like home.

You confront a lot of emotions on the trail but one of the most palpable is the fear of being alone in the wild. How did you do it?

I opted to make fear my companion rather than my ruler. It could walk alongside me, but it wasn't going to be my guide. It was a conscious decision I made about my life. I'm not braver than most people. I was able to hike all that way alone because I decided to be brave. When I felt afraid, I told myself I was not afraid and I simply continued on. A lot of things happen to us in our lives that we can't control, but we do get to control how we respond to them. From the moment I decided to hike the PCT I knew that fear had the power to keep me from doing what I wanted to do, but only if I allowed it to. I chose not to.

You write very honestly about how woefully unprepared you were for the trip. Looking back now, are you ever surprised that you made it?

Yes and no. I must say, there's a part of me that's amazed I stuck it out. I mean, it's not as if I went out there running on the steam of a years-long dream of hiking the PCT. I was miserable so much of the time and in at least some pain pretty much always. But I tend to be stubborn. If I say I'm going to do something I'm usually going to do it. And there was enough beauty and wonder in each day that I always wanted to see what would reveal itself in the next. I also learned a whole lot. I stepped onto that trail ill-prepared and naïve. I stepped off of it a seasoned backpacker. That's what I love most about backpacking. You can talk about it all you want, but it's the trail that teaches you how to do it. Once I was in, I wasn't going to stop.

How did the other people you met at various points on the trail help you in your journey?

I often went days without encountering another human being. The solitude was tremendous—far more than I expected—and so when I met someone it was a fairly momentous occasion. I had an immediate sense of kinship with others who were hiking long distances on the PCT, like we were in something together, even if we'd only just met. Generosity was a given, as was kindness, respect, and a willingness to share one's supply of chocolate. Many times it was those people I met on the trail who kept me going. They cheered me up and made me laugh. They agonized or strategized with me. Most importantly, their presence convinced me that if they could do this, so could I. I also met people who weren't hiking the PCT, who instead were impressed, appalled or confused by what I was doing, and they were equally important. They were like a collective grounding wire for me, keeping me rooted in the world that was outside the PCT. After all these years, I'm still overwhelmed by the generosity of the many strangers who passed briefly through my life that summer. So many people were so good to me. It's something one never forgets.

Let's talk about boots. Perhaps your most important relationship forged on the PCT was the one with your boots. Would it be safe to describe this as a love/hate relationship?

My boots were the bane of my existence! They felt almost alive in their cruelty, as if they were intentionally causing me pain. When I lost one over the side of a mountain I was horrified, but I was also filled with a giddy relief. It was as if I'd been on a long, torturous road trip with the most miserable person on the planet and I'd finally and at last insisted he pull over so I could get out. Which is great, but then you're standing there by the side of the road. What next? In Wild, what was next is precisely what had come before: to keep walking. My feet never stopped hurting, in fact the pain only grew more intense as the days passed. But I feel sort of lucky even for that. I endured, in spite of the pain. It was a lesson to me, perhaps the most important one of all, the very one I went out there to learn: that we can survive even if it nearly kills us.

Can you introduce us to Monster?

Monster is the world's best backpack, or so I now think. The truth is, we got off to a terrible start. I loaded it up in a motel room in Mojave, California on the morning of the first day of my hike and found that I couldn't ift it. And I don't mean I couldn't hoist it up and on. I mean I couldn't raise it from the ground. Not even a millimeter. There are many questions I asked myself in the course of my journey, but the first and most serious one was how on this green earth was I going to carry a pack over 1100 miles of mountain wilderness when I couldn't even lift it an inch in an air-conditioned motel room. My answer was a backpack-donning routine worthy of the most avant-garde modern dance routine you've ever seen. It was so humiliating I refused to do it in the presence of others. Which was rather easy, since I seldom saw a soul. Monster is in semi-retirement in my basement now. Whenever I spot it while I'm down there doing the laundry, it's like running into an old friend. We made that whole journey together. I carried Monster all the way. And it carried me. Of all the profound things I learned on the PCT, I think the most profound was the knowledge that I could bear everything I needed on my own back. That sense of self-sufficiency was unforgettable, both a perspective shift and a life-changer. I couldn't have done that without Monster. We were a team.

What was the hardest part of the journey—was it the blisters? The dehydrated food? The snow? Or did those pale in comparison to confronting the things that drove you to the trail in the first place?

During my hike, I found there to be an interesting relationship between physical and emotional suffering. Of course the emotional suffering is far more difficult to bear. To keep my mother from dying, I'd have endured the most unendurable physical pain, but I wasn't given that choice. None of us get to trade this for that. We simply have to do our best given the unchangeable facts of our life. The main fact of my life on the PCT was that I had to walk a really long way every day over challenging terrain in all sorts of weather conditions while carrying an incredibly heavy pack. There was absolutely no arguing with that. Much to my surprise, that fact made the other, more emotional facts more bearable. If I could walk ten miles on blistered feet one hot afternoon, I could go on another day without my mother. The hardest part of my journey was trusting that the days would add up to something bigger than my fears and doubts.

You write about the books you read on the trail. Can you tell us a little about how you selected them and what they meant to you on that trip?

I love books. I've always loved books. But the books I took with me on my PCT hike were even more important because they were often my only companions. Some I chose because I'd always heard I should read them—books like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Nabokov's Lolita fall in to that category—others I chose because I'd already read and loved them, such as Adrienne Rich's The Dream of Common Language, which is something of a sacred text in Wild.

These many years later are there certain moments or days on the trail that still stay with you more than others?

Some days blur together, others stand out in vivid detail. The agony of hiking with my enormous pack in the tremendous heat of the southern Sierra Nevada is something I'll never forget. Running out of water on the Hat Creek Rim is another unforgettable experience. I remember those days almost down to the very breaths I took and the steps I made, probably because I felt afraid or uncomfortable. But I also have distinct memories of the trip's deepest pleasures and smallest joys: the way it felt to eat a cheeseburger at one of my re-supply stops, or to step into a hot shower. I can still feel that ecstasy, like body memory. And of course, the small beautiful moments on the trail, how often I was astonished by the natural beauty all around me. Those things stay with you forever.

How do you think the experience most changed you—both at the time and also are their lessons from the PCT that continue to reveal themselves to you all these years later?

My experience on the PCT gave me a confidence that I don't think I'd have gotten any other way. It's a particular kind of confidence—one rooted in humility. How was I going to get from point A to point B? Where would I find clean water? Did I have food and adequate clothing and shelter? Those are the questions that consumed most of my days on the PCT. They mattered more than anything—they always do—but until I was out on the PCT I'd forgotten that. My hike put my priorities in perspective, it reminded me of the power of simplicity, it forced me to be self-sufficient, it tested me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Over the years, the fruits of that labor have been innumerable.

Who have you discovered lately?

Two debut novelists: Tupelo Hassman, whose breathtaking novel, Girlchild, is beautiful and hard in the best way, and Alexis M. Smith, who wrote a wonderful novel called Glaciers [A Spring 2012 Discover Great New Writers selection. -Ed.] that is so perceptive and precise I found myself slowing down and going back, just so I could read those sentences again.

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Cheryl Strayed's life whirled out of control after her mother died. Falling into a maelstrom of infidelity and drugs resulting in a divorce. So what better way to "find yourself" than to try... (read more)

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What made the book so inspiring is that it is non-fiction. It makes one think of their own life-changing adventures and how we can live our own lives to the fullest.

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I rooted for Cheryl the whole way! What an inspiration!!!

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