Wild, an interview with best selling author Cheryl Strayed

WildCover

At the age of 26 best-selling author Cheryl Strayed strapped on a backpack and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Over the course of 94 days she traveled from Mojave California to the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks Oregon, just outside of Portland where she lives today. Four years after loosing her mother who died of cancer Strayed ventured  into the wilds of nature in order to find a part of herself she felt was missing. With absolutely now experience in backpacking she made the impulsive decision to deal with her unimaginable grief with an impossible adventure.

Strayed:
I was in such a place of desperation at that moment in my life that I needed something big. I needed a journey. I needed to go, to get myself to a different place. As I say in my book to gather myself, back to myself. And I knew that that wasn’t going to be a bunch of day hikes as I traveled and car camped. It needed to be a journey into the wild.

JTP:
While hiking the PCT Strayed encountered much of what you might expect on a long backpacking trip. But she’d find there was more in store for her than bug bits, blisters and sunburn. Along the miles of her journey she discovered the strength to endure the pain and suffering of loss while coming to the understanding that like the trail before her life goes on.
I’m James Mills and you’re listening to the Joy Trip Project.

Music by the Shanghai Restoration Project

JTP:
Cheryl Strayed was the key note speaker at the biannual breakfast meeting of the Conservation Alliance during the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City, Utah. I had the opportunity to talk to her about her book Wild and the circumstances that started her long journey after the sudden death of her mother.

Strayed:
I was really in a place of total despair. It’s sort of strange for me to really remember it now, because I’m 44. I’m happy. I have this really rich happy life. But at that time I really felt like I didn’t feel that I could go on. I had worked myself into such a place of sorrow over the grief of my mother. But then the things I did in that grief brought me further down. I made bad decisions. I was sexually promiscuous. I cheated on my husband who I loved. And that was really against my values. It was against the person I am. I’m not against promiscuity. I think it can have its moment in a life, but it was not the good thing for me to be doing it in that context. I was deceiving someone I loved. I was deceiving, really sort of violating a promise I made to someone I cared about. And then I got involved with drugs. Anyone who’s ever been under the influence knows, those things we reach for them because we think they’ll make us feel better and they always make us feel worse. When you reach for them in desperation they make you feel worse. And so those things were all effecting my state of mind too. And I got to the point where I thought, well you know why should I? Why should I go on living? Who would care if I disappeared? And I was feeling so much pain that it was the first time that I understood how it is that people would choose to end their lives. I wasn’t…I wouldn’t say I was honestly considering suicide. But I felt that kind of pain. Why  I go on?

JTP:
Is it fair to suggest that you might have gone into the wild in act of not necessarily of self destruction but in that moment in time to perhaps become reborn in a way?

Strayed:
Yes. I think what I’d been doing is throwing myself up against risk. I was doing dangerous things. I mean I was shooting heroine. I was having sex with people I hardly knew and not always protected. I felt like I could take risks because I felt like nobody cares about me so I don’t have to care about myself, you know? I was also coming to terms with, you know, back there, there was also my father who was an abusive father, not person in my life. I think that when my mom died the, the stuff with my father that I thought I had sort of resolved, which really I solved by burying, really emerged. And I felt  that kind of sorrow. I think when I made the decision to go into the wild it was like I needed to test my strength, myself against something. It was like a positive risk. It was like I’m going to be daring in a way that actually builds my soul rather than depletes it.

JTP:
Now I get the impression from your book that you did heroine for the first time on impulse. I would describe it as a very impulsive act. And you also just a moment ago described heroine as the opposite of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Is it fair to suggest that hiking the PCT was also a compulsive act?

Strayed:
I think the decision seems compulsive. You know I’m standing in line and I grab this book off the shelf and I think I’m going to do that. On the other hand some of my best decisions have come at like that. I think it wasn’t…it didn’t rise out of nothing.  Just like the decision to use heroine, the woman who was offered heroine and said yes was a woman who was suffering, who was alone, who was in a state of despair and willing to basically try anything. So that rose out of that moment. The woman who decided to hike the PCT was someone who was realizing that she had gone way too far down and alley she had never intended to go and I didn’t know how to find my way back. But when I read about the PCT I thought,  it’s going to get me somewhere. Walking that trail will lead me somewhere and it will probably be some where good.

JTP:
So having made the hike, is there any point in particular that you felt, well in reading this there are plenty of time you wish that you had quit. You might have decided to turn around but at what point where you especially glad to be on the PCT.

Strayed:
The wasn’t…there might have been a couple of days in those 94 days where I you know at the end of the day didn’t feel glad.  Most days I would sit, I would make my camp, I would eat my dinner and I was often in a place of complete, I was absolutely shattered, physically shattered, I mean brought to end. Having hiked five miles beyond what I thought I could hike that day. And I would just sit there and eat my little pot of food and watch the sunset, or sometimes the sun had set already and I’d watch the stars and listen to the coyotes or whatever it was and just feel immense beauty and that was so profound. I always felt glad to be there, even though I spent most of the day complaining to myself in my head about how my feet hurt or something.

JTP:
So was there a particular moment that was especially bad?
Strayed:
There were many particular moments that were especially bad. You know one day that always that stands out to me was a day pretty early in my hike when I decided I was going to quit and it was…I had this terribly, ridiculously heavy pack.

JTP:
Monster
Strayed:
Exactly monster, but even a big, big strong man would have very, a lot of trouble carrying this pack. And I’m hiking and it’s hot. It’s hundred and something…whatever it is it’s hotter than anything. And there’s no shade. And I realize I have made a terrible mistake and I quit. I just wanted out. As I right in Wild I’m going  to get off this trail and get on a bus and I don’t care where it’s going. I’m getting away from here. And it was really, you know, total despair.

JTP:
At the end of the day when you talk about the experience you had in   backpacking trip…I want to make sure that I formulate this question properly. It’s been a long time. Why now? What’s changed that makes it important for you to tell this story today that, you know happened a very long time ago.

Strayed:
It’s been like 17 years. ’95 this summer it will be 18 years. And I wrote it 13 or 14 years after the hike and think that so much of that, you know I always say I didn’t write Wild because I took a hike. I wrote Wild because I’m a writer. What I had to say in Wild, was of course about a hike, it was of course about a backpacking journey, but more importantly it was about what that hike meant to me. I couldn’t figure out what it meant to me in deep way until I first because the writer I am today and that takes time. But also the person I am today, to understand what is the perspective that the 40-year-old me could bare on the 26 year old me. And that’s the deeper story of like what is it that we as humans seek when we set out on a journey. What happens when we suffer and we feel we can’t go on? How do we go on anyway? These were the bigger questions I was asking through the really smaller  prism of my own experience.

JTP:
You’re clearly a different person today. If you were to go back in time as the person you are today and talk to Cheryl at 26 what would tell her?
Strayed:
What’s interesting is that I think that I’m, I know that I’m essentially the same person. You know I really am the same person. It’s just that I couldn’t see then that you know time heals all wounds. And that I felt stuck. And when you do experience big grief there’s a reason. It’s a big loss and I was stuck in it. And I couldn’t imagine that I would ever feel any other way. And what I’ve learned, the older me wants to go back to the younger me and say it’s OK . You can survive this and you will. But it’s going to take some effort on your part. And most of that effort is going to have to do with simply accepting, accepting that life is hard and that we all have losses and we can move through them. When I was writing Wild I would sometimes go back and shake my head at the younger version of myself and frankly more often than not I felt a lot of love for the younger version of myself and I felt protective of her.

JTP:
And what would say to that person who might be going out on the PCT for the first time now?

Strayed:
Go do it! Go do it indeed. There’s no question that it it will lead to something beautiful. And that it’s going to be hard and the best medicine for difficult times I think is laughter. Because I think it is pretty funny some of the stuff that happens out there. It is pretty funny in the end. That horribly heavy pack, that monster I couldn’t bare now is only like the punchline of a very long joke in memory. So I think that sometimes really to keep going you have to sometimes bring in some humor.

The book Wild is published by Knopf and is available wherever fine books are sold. You can learn more about the author and her other works in literature online at CherylStrayed.com.

Music This week by The Shanghai Restoration Project.20130419-072621.jpg

 

The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support of sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac and the New Belgium Brewing Company

Special thanks the Conservation Alliance for arranging this interview.


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Author:James Mills

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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  1. Traumpfad: Pacific Crest Trail | awesomatik - May 2, 2013

    [...] einen Weg aus einer persönlichen Krise (Drogensucht und dem Tod ihrer Mutter) gesucht hat.  In diesem Interview spricht sie über ihre Erfahrungen. [...]

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