Reading Wild is like watching a train wreck photographed in exquisite slow motion and super high definition. It is both horrifying and captivating at the same time, something you can’t tear your eyes from even though you think you should. It’s a beautifully written account of a life that is anything but beautiful. The book is a non-fiction account of the author’s self-redemption achieved through her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) while in her twenties.
As she freely admits, almost boasts, she was one *&%^ed up young girl at that time, immediately after her mother’s death. Many descriptors of her come to mind as you read: adultress, heroin user, horny, irresponsible, vain, reckless, self-delusional, impetuous. But you don’t have to like the person, the character she portrays as herself, to like the book, and I liked it very much. She writes wonderfully. I could almost feel myself on the trail, experience that sinking feeling at every disaster, and there is one on almost every page. Every new chapter, two or three new bad decisions.
Her tale of the trail is interwoven with accounts of the life that preceded the pilgrimage: her wife-beating father who abandoned the family, her mother’s unconventional semi-hippie lifestyle in a tarpaper shack on a bare tract of land in northern Minnesota, her pregnancy, abortion, and divorce, but most of all her mother’s death.
Three possibilities exist: the author has an incredible memory, she took and preserved phenomenal notes of every step, or she has a fantastic imagination and made it all up. She describes almost every bite she ate for the months-long journey fifteen years earlier, the exact moment she lost each toenail. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday. She developed an inexplicable compulsion for Snapple and snap decisions. She brought a roll of condoms with her on the hike. She was obviously a hot number back then which got her all kinds of favors and kind treatment, especially from men, and put her at risk of some pretty nasty behavior, also from men. I did some backpacking in the Sierras in my younger days and there was a grandeur about those mountains, something humbling and frightening and enthralling. I was tempted to say “indescribable” but Strayed manages to capture the feeling remarkably well.
I didn’t know until I read the book that her name, Strayed, was self-anointed at the time of her divorce, and spot on appropriate. This book is one you don’t want your daughter to read in her freshman year of college. You don’t want her to think “Well, if she can shoot heroin, abort any pregnancy, hike the PCT alone, and still end up famous and have a movie made about her, I can too.” No, you can’t. Strayed was the embodiment of foolishness and lucky to still be alive, not just from those pre-hike life choices, but also because of her reckless, woefully unprepared approach to the PCT itself. I’m a judgmental person. As an FBI agent and the father of a beautiful young woman I judge the author harshly, but as a writer and self-anointed critic I judge the book very differently. I was thoroughly moved the entire way through it. I know there is a movie out based on the book but I have no desire to see it. The compelling force of the story is its reality. The book gives us that; the movie would only be a staged reenactment, a falsity.