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Wild: A Memoir by Cheryl Strayed

I was pleased and honoured when I heard that my local Hospice group, where I am a volunteer, included my book review of Wild, from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail  in the course they give to new volunteers.

I haven’t yet read a memoir where love and loss are not crucial to the story. There are many kinds of love. Love of freedom (read: Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre), love for a gorilla (read: Virunga by Farley Mowat), love for one’s fellow man (read: I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish), love for a daughter (read: Blue Nights by Joan Didion). The list is long. We all seek love! Is hate the opposite of love? Or, is it loss? Often, it is fear.

Reading a memoir enables us to understand that there are many varied and valid reactions to a universal event. We become more empathetic, tolerant, wise. I became well acquainted with sadness and rupture when my mother died. Tears poured for a month. Then, she seemed more distant – perhaps off on an astral mission – and I realized I was at peace. Reading Cheryl Strayed’s exquisite story of losing her mother opened my eyes and heart to another’s loss of another mother. So very different. Yet, we’d both lost the same mother figure, same first role model, the woman who had wombed us, shed her blood for us.

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The memoir Wild, from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an account of 22-year-old Cheryl Strayed losing her 49-year-old mother to cancer. Shattered and enraged, she cannot imagine living without her mother. She sinks into a four-year wilderness of wanting her mother back, of terrifying dreams and heroin, of leaving the husband she loved.

Then, the still-overpowering sadness propels her to leave her home in Minnesota where her mother was buried. She sits by the grave and tells her mother that she had put her somewhere else—within her. And with that, she takes off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in California and Oregon, over a thousand miles of it, northward to the Canadian border, alone. She’d never hiked before.

This story is not for the faint-hearted. It’s raw and explosive with brutal—and sweet—encounters with bears, snakes, occasional other hikers and the reality of the terrain itself. Lost and terrified more than once, the experience parallels Strayed’s loss and terror over losing her mother.

Before she starts the PCT, tears are her almost constant companion. After a few weeks on the trail, she notes that she’d not shed a single tear and reflects that she is simply too exhausted and in too much physical pain to have room left over for tears. There is the pain from boots that didn’t fit (she would lose 6 toenails) and pain from the monster backpack that rubbed her flesh raw in several places.

Her mother was the backdrop to everything. Towards the end of the trail, she squatted down by the Sandy River and splashed water on her face. Of that moment, she lets us see this introspection:

“Where was my mother? I wondered. I’d carried her so long, staggering beneath her weight. On the other side of the river, I let myself think. And something inside of me released.
Normal as life on the trail came to be, and unbelievably over, “there was no way to go back, to make it stay.” She reached the Columbia River in a state of pure joy, “as if a newborn baby had just slipped finally into my palms after a long labour.”

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This memoir could be a comfort and a guide to anyone who has lost, or who may soon lose, a love. If you are writing about love, loss and fear in your memoir, Strayed’s account may open doors of possibility for you.

Wild has many insights into a young woman’s long labour through grief into new life on the other side. It offers a resolution to grief that is not often sought or thought of: a tough physical challenge in the natural world. While hiking, Strayed’s two pains—the emotional pain of losing her mother, and the physical pain of the challenges of the trail—were intermingled. Working through the physical helped her work through the emotional. Indeed, it would not be too far a stretch to say that she had to come close to death herself to transcend her mother’s death.

Your own memoir will, no doubt,  have valuable insights into the turmoil of loss. The world needs to hear them. I need to hear them. From the stony patient path of grief, beauty will one day arise.

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6 comments on “Wild: A Memoir by Cheryl Strayed

  1. I love that you say you’ve yet to read a memoir “where love and loss are not crucial to the story.” While there may be some out there, memoirs of love and loss are the ones I gravitate to as well! I loved Strayed’s Wild. And I’m going to go check out Farley Mowat’s Virunga right now. I read his Never Cry Wolf a few years back. I will read anything written by that fellow. 🙂

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  2. Sharon, I think you will like Virunga. I live in the town where Farely Mowat lived – Port Hope, Ontario. My mother had most of his books. Never Cry Wolf was great – I remember him staking out his territory with copious quantities of tea to produce the necessary urine and the wolves accepting his scent/presence. So glad to connect with you over this author, and look forward to future insights from you!

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  3. We all hit the wall in our own way. That is why there are so many stories.
    Lynda

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  4. Lynda, so true. And as many ways of levelling that wall as there are story tellers. YOU have a few stories!

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  5. beautiful. I love that our own names tell a story. Diane may not be revolutionary, but it tells a story about love.

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  6. Dear ‘Muse’, Can I call you Muse for short, for I think you are mine! I do like your connection between Diane/Diana and love.

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