Author Cheryl Strayed sought emotional healing, and found a physical test

Cheryl Strayed
Author Cheryl Strayed in a file photo from October 2012.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Cheryl Strayed's second book, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," which chronicles her arduous hike and the personal problems that drove her to that journey, has become an international best-seller. The memoir recounts Strayed's crippling grief over her mother's death, the disintegration of her marriage, her impulsive decision to hike more than a thousand miles and the healing she finally achieved, according to an Amazon summary.

"I was going to have to keep moving forward, even though I was in great pain," she told Kerri Miller at a book club event that was broadcast Wednesday on The Daily Circuit.

On her first night on the trail and many other times before and during her hike, Stayed said, she spoke aloud Adrienne Rich's poem, "Power":

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

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Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

Like Madame Curie, "I needed to find strength in the place where I had been wounded," Strayed told Miller. "And so much of that was borne out on the hike. I took the hike because I was suffering. I was in so much pain I didn't know what to do with myself, so I decided to take a really long walk with a really heavy pack."

"I was here in Minnesota, when I decided to take that hike," she recalled. "I was living in Minneapolis and working as a waitress, and I was really at this bottom point of my life. ... I knew that the wilderness was a place I felt gathered, I knew it was a place that brought me to the calmest, truest self. I had grown up in rural Aitkin County, Minn., and I felt at home in the woods. So it didn't seem surprising that I decided to turn to that place in my sorrow.

"But I must say, I also did have this sort of Hollywood vision of what I was going out there to get. It was emotional healing. It was looking at sunsets and reflecting on life. I wasn't thinking about blisters and deprivation and a pack that I couldn't even stand up beneath its weight, it was so heavy. ... You know that soundtrack that goes on in the back when you're getting a massage? I think that's the soundtrack I imagined."

She's been surprised, she said, by the number of readers who want to share stories of their own loss with her.

"I was in Seattle, at one of the first readings I did, and this 88-year-old man came up to me on his walker ... and he couldn't speak to me at first, because he was crying so hard. He couldn't say what moved him about 'Wild.' But when he could speak, he told me he had just lost his wife. And here I was telling the story of a young woman who lost her mom and of my grief. And he was telling what he was experiencing, of having lost his wife of more than 60 years, and he didn't know how to go on living. And he was sharing that with me."


Radical Sincerity: Cheryl Strayed at TEDxConcordiaUPortland

Put It in a Box and Wait: The Millions interviews Cheryl Strayed
"It is ordinary and human to fall down and to make mistakes, and it is courageous to get back up. Throughout her writing, but particularly as Sugar, Strayed rummages through her failures and sorrows as though they were a sack of Christmas presents, offering each story as a gift of compassion that seems so well-matched to each letter writer that readers can't possibly overlook the message that our lives — not just at their best moments, but also our worst — are of great value." (The Millions)

An interview with Cheryl Strayed
"In 'Wild,' the reader gets to encounter a very different Cheryl: rather than a rising author, a loving mother, and adviser to thousands of people, we meet a twentysomething young woman so reeling and alone that she turns to infidelity, heroin, and a (seemingly preposterous at first) solo hike spanning more than a thousand miles." (Bookslut)

Eat, Pray, Love Like a Badass: Cheryl Strayed, the Oprah Author 2.0
"Strayed's pragmatism stands in stark contrast to Elizabeth Gilbert's 'search for everything' mantra from her 2006 memoir that made her the epitome of a 'live your best life' Oprah-branded author." (The Atlantic)

Cheryl Strayed still contemplates 'Wild' woman transformation
"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." (MPR)