Subtitled: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Four years after Strayed’s mother dies and her life falls into chaos, addiction, and loneliness, she sets off – without any true preparation – to hike a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
If ever there was a book that I should have abandoned, this is it.
So in my recent review of Leave Only Footprints, I talked about being wary of the author’s memoir portions, as he did this project as a recovery from heartbreak, and that can all-too-easily turn into whining, bitter naval-gazing. It didn’t, and I was happy for that. Wild…is the opposite. About 60-70% of this book is all about Strayed’s crappy childhood and traumatic adulthood and addiction issues. There were these long tangents that had nothing to do with hiking the PCT where I just wanted to speed ahead and get back to the actual hiking portion of it, because honestly, I just got tired of hearing the same thing over and over and over again. This is why I rarely read memoirs. I have no interest in reading about most people’s personal lives and the intricacies of their emotional turmoils. Maybe that makes me callous, but frankly, I have enough on my plate without wading through someone else’s crap, you know? Which is why I avoid memoirs. I only read this one because I wanted to read about the hike! I’d hoped it would be like Becoming Odyssa – which was also a lost-to-found type of story, but which focused on the hike primarily – a sort of PCT alternate to the AT. It was not. Here were some of my thoughts as I read:
- Wait. The heroin bits are sus. No detox?? That’s not how that works…
- Why, why, why, why, why would anyone ever EAT THEIR MOTHER’S CREMATED ASHES????? WITH CHUNKS OF BONE IN THEM?????
- WTF did she do to that poor horse?
- How many times can she repeat the same phrase over and over? This book really needs an editor.
- There is a lot of casual racism and stereotyping here.
- How did this lady not die? (ad nauseum)
- How irresponsible can you be to not only start this unprepared, but keep going that way, endangering rescue workers and anyone who looks to this hike as inspiration?
I should have known better than to keep reading. I’d been warned away from this book from people who know about my drug phobias. There’s a lot of heroin-talk in this book. (Also, trigger warnings for others – there is drug addiction, child abuse, domestic abuse, animal cruelty, rapey-vibe scenes, and the like in this book.) That alone should have turned me away, but nope, I kept on going. I tried so hard to like this one, and just couldn’t. Even though I read through the memoir portions as fast as I possibly could, I also kept getting irritated with the hiking/camping portions. I think the author and I just have polar opposite personalities. Her chaotic, uninformed, wing-it approach the the world is not only the furthest thing from something I’d ever do, but it stressed me out just reading about it. Then, as the book went on, the hiking portions got smaller and smaller, skipping right through most of the actual hiking to the overnights-at-way-stops whenever Strayed wasn’t recounting her past.
For a book that was meant to be about hiking the PCT, there was very little about hiking the PCT.
By the time I finished, all I wanted was to find a different book about hiking the PCT. Whereas Becoming Odyssa made me want to do a long-distance hike for the first time in my life, Wild made me feel like I would never, ever, EVER want to go backpacking or distance hiking, which actually makes me really sad! Clearly, I’m the wrong audience. It’s a bit like how The Omnivore’s Dilemma turned me off of processed food, whereas Salt Sugar Fat – which was attempting to do the same – actually made me crave it more.
I did learn a few things from this book, though:
- What not to do if I ever go backpacking (which frankly, as an avid day-hiker, I could have said without reading this book, but this made it even more abundantly clear)
- Maybe REI would swap out my hiking boots, which I’ve only worn twice because they’re too small and make my feet go numb after a few miles.
- I need to find a more recent book about the PCT, to see if the trail conditions have improved in the last 25 years.
- I would really like a trail partner or two, because I would not want to do any backpacking trip alone. (I have many day-hiking friends and an entire hiking group I belong to, but we haven’t tried backpacking at this point.)
- Just like I said in my review of Becoming Odyssa, I really, really wish I had a trail name. Maybe one day.
That’s all. I wish I could be more positive, but this was clearly not the book for me. If you like memoirs, it might be really great for you. But if you were looking to read this one for the hiking portions, I’d suggest finding another book as this one spends very little time on that, plus Strayed’s hike took place many years ago (so might not be as relevant today, as trail conditions definitely change over time).
Note: After reading the book and writing this review, I couldn’t stop thinking about how off everything felt in this book (especially the “walked away from heroin with no issues” bit). I was also having a lot of trouble understanding why everyone else seemed to love it. Looking down through the ratings/reviews of my GoodReads friends, it was all glowing praise and four- to five-star entries…until I got to my friend Karen’s rating. She’d given it one star, and I reached out to her to say I’m glad I’m not alone in my feelings. She, too, expressed how off she felt about this book, and linked me out to an entire blog that debunks Strayed’s entire trip. I’m always inclined to believe nonfiction, perhaps because I don’t read as much of it, but this blog helped me put together why things felt so off. I’ve had experiences with folks who embellish and invent 90% of their stories in the past, and after realizing just how much of this book was verifiably false, I finally understood the instincts that were kicking in as I read.
The blog is hilariously cutting – it’s called “I Hate Cheryl Strayed” after all – so perhaps don’t read it if you like Strayed or her memoir. Personally, I spent an entire afternoon reading all 40ish posts that debunk, fact-check, and rip apart Wild. And hey, now that I’ve done that, I dislike the author even more and don’t feel nearly as bad as I did about the PCT. Excellent trade-off!
I didn’t like it much when I read it for my book group, but upon recollection I got definite James Frey vibes. I don’t know why Oprah didn’t vet this book properly after that whole debacle. It just makes me really mad that she’s made so much money off this book and is potentially endangering people who think they can just hike the PCH with zero preparation.
And according to REI you can exchange boots as long as it hasn’t been more than a year since purchase.
I’m really glad I never read James Frey’s books. The funny thing is, the boys used to see A Million Little Pieces at Thrift Town all the time, and because of the “donut” sprinkle effect, they would point out every single time they saw that book – first honestly, as little kids, and then ironically as teens. That was literally my only association with that book until becoming aware of the controversy recently.
Thanks for the info from REI! I need to call them. I bought the books in November and have literally worn them for only 13 miles!
I’ve never read this book, but I clicked through to the “I Hate Cheryl Strayed” blog, and I loved the introductory post so much I might have to read the entire thing. Also, I would absolutely read that blogger’s book about hiking across the U.S.
I have a friend out here in WA who takes long backpacking trips on parts of the PCT and PNT. I think she’d love to do a thru hike, but as of now she has a job and other obligations that prevent it. Anyway, I love seeing her photos and stories, and it seems like the PCT would be an awesome hike. (Also, she has a trail name! I never knew that was a thing until she mentioned it.)
She posts long, detailed summaries of her hikes at her blog, sans navel-gazing, if you’re interested. Sometimes I just like looking at the pictures!
Here’s a random snippet: https://hillslug98239.blog/2019/10/02/hiking-section-j/
Ooh, thanks for the link! That’s really awesome, and I’ll definitely be checking out her blog. Also, yes, I’d definitely read the blogger’s across-the-country hike! I wish she’d continued posting after all this.