When Minnesota native Cheryl Strayed set out alone to hike over 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, reality hit hard.
Strayed recounts her three-month journey in her bestselling memoir, "Wild." She could hardly lift her backpack and her boots were too small. But the misery of her first few days on the trail was little compared with the torment she had experienced from the death of her mother and the collapse of her marriage.
"Wild" opens with Strayed describing the awful moment when her backpack fell and catapulted one of her boots over the edge of a cliff.
"I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing," Strayed wrote. "It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Riachle boot with a red leather lace and silver metal fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life.
"I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too."
It was 1995 and Cheryl Strayed was a mess. She had lost her mother to cancer four years previously. That threw her into a tail spin. She began to question everything, including her marriage. She embarked on a string of affairs.
"I had been grieving my mother so fiercely. I had destroyed my marriage," Strayed recalled.
"An interesting experience does not a story make... At least not a book."
She divorced. She tried heroin. Then one day she chanced across a guidebook for the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs through Washington state down to California and beyond. She couldn't get the idea of hiking the trail out of her head.
"I needed to attach myself to something that was significant and magnificent and grand and bigger than me," Strayed said.
Having grown up in rural Aitkin County Strayed thought she knew about living in the woods. But she quickly learned that the Pacific Crest Trail is unforgiving to the unprepared, particularly one who hikes alone.
Her pack, which she nicknamed the Monster, was so heavy she developed huge calluses from the hip belt. Her first pair of too-small boots blackened her toenails one by one. A second better-fitting pair did little better. Then there was fear of wild animals, of snow-filled passes, encounters with lecherous men and the crippling sense of loneliness. Yet, Strayed said, being alone was what she needed.
"I was stupid. I was brave. I was lonely. I was bored. I was excited. I was all of those things," Strayed said "That solitude gave me all of those things."
She emerged from the trail a different person, ready to move on with her life. She emphasizes that it was a subtle change.
"Narratives that we receive from Hollywood and other media sources is that somehow somebody began a journey and they were Charles Manson, and then end the journey and they are the Buddha," Strayed said. "And I knew for certain that's not how transformation works. That's not how my life worked."
People told Strayed for years she should write about her experience but she told them she didn't have anything to say.
"An interesting experience does not a story make," Strayed said. "At least not a book."
But the transformation that had began on the trail continued, Strayed said. She published two books of fiction. She moved to Portland, Ore., remarried and now has two small children.
"And so it was the right time," she said. "I began writing "Wild" in 2008. I thought it was going to be an essay and I found I that I really had so much more to say."
"Wild" has now been on the New York Times bestseller list for 25 weeks. Strayed will read from the book at 6.15 p.m. today at the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library's Books and Bars event at the Amsterdam Bar. She will also read Wednesday evening at the University of St. Thomas, and Thursday evening at Micawber's Books.
Strayed said she did not write "Wild" to inspire anyone, and she is surprised that it has. But it may be that others are looking for themselves too.
"Memoir is always criticized as the narcissistic form," she said. "But then if it's done right it's really not about the writer. It's both very much about that writer and really about all of us. And I think that that is what people are responding to: they recognize themselves."
Strayed has had a whirlwind year. Oprah Winfrey chose "Wild" as the first selection for her new book club. For Strayed, it seems the transformation continues.