Oh, man! I loved this book!! I was actually skeptical about whether I would like it or not. While I’ve found it fascinating that people do long distance hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, I’m not a backpacker or a camper, so I wasn’t sure how interesting it would be to me. What made me want to read the book in the first place was that this woman not only took this journey, but did it alone. However, as I checked out the book at the library and was told the due date in three weeks, I thought for sure that I’d be extending that due date because I may not be able to “get into” the book. Boy was I wrong. In fact, I intended to make notes as I read, but I became so engrossed, I made just a few as I could not put the book down! Read on to find out why.
Throughout the book, Strayed provides glimpses and snapshots of her life leading up to her hiking the PCT. As she recounts her childhood, she doesn’t describe her unconventional upbringing verbatim or even as a clear timeline. The facts and memories she chooses to relay are so rich with detail that they are completely revealing. I didn’t need to know everything. This style continues throughout the book. The moments Strayed describes during her mother’s short illness are raw and honest and crystal clear. She doesn’t “tell” her story; she relives specific moments and takes the reader with her into those moments. Some of those moments are interesting, some are desperate, some are sorrowful, and some are hilarious.
For example, it’s Strayed’s second day on the trail “when suddenly I had the urge to do what I called in my mind use the bathroom, though out here using the bathroom meant maintaining an unsupported squat so I could shit in a hole of my own making. It was for this reason I’d brought the stainless-steel trowel that was looped through my backpack’s waistband in its own black nylon sheath with U-Dig-It printed on the front. I didn’t dig it, but it was the backpacker way, so there was nothing else to do.” She finds a place behind a bush and when she tries to dig the hole, “it was like attempting to penetrate a granite kitchen counter sprinkled with sand and pebbles.” She explains chipping away uselessly until she had to “simply squat down and go. I was so weak with relief when I was done that I almost toppled over into the pile of my own hot dung. Afterwards, I limped around gathering rocks and built a small crap cairn, burying the evidence before hiking on.” Hahahahaha!!! Call me immature, but I think poop stories are hilarious. But more than that, Cheryl doesn’t ever have to describe using the bathroom on the trail again for the reader to understand what a pain in the ass (so to speak) it is to relieve oneself on the PCT.
And later in the book, Strayed recounts that after her mother’s death, she had to put down her mother’s horse, which had been special not only to her mother but to Strayed. She couldn’t afford to have the horse euthanized by a vet, so she’s forced to do it with the help of her husband and her brother. The description of this event is so vivid and heart wrenching that I actually had to close the book and walk away for a bit. And it’s not the obvious kind of heart wrenching that you think about when putting down a pet. I won’t spoil it. You have to read it to understand.
I was really struck by the camaraderie among hikers on the PCT. There seems to be an instant kinship as hikers encounter one another. They are completely willing to help one another, but without expectations or judgments. They may share a camp and food for a night then take off at different times the next day without necessarily meeting up again. It’s such a unique dynamic that results from a common goal and common struggles on the trail. I loved reading about the other hikers she met on the trail.
I would imagine hiking the PCT for three months can be quite monotonous, and Strayed makes reference to this several times. However, she focuses on her experiences with wildlife and her various encounters with people on and off the trail. These stories communicate the richness and uniqueness of her journey. She sleeps next to a pond only to wake up covered in little frogs. She encounters a reporter for Hobo Times who insists on calling her a hobo in spite of her protests that she’s a hiker. A couple she’d met earlier leaves a peach for her as they hike ahead. “As difficult and maddening as the trail could be,” she writes, “there was hardly a day that passed that didn’t offer up some form of what was called trail magic in the PCT vernacular – the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.”
As Cheryl comes to the end of her 3-month journey on the trail, she describes how strange it will be to leave the trail and return to regular life. “I didn’t know how living outdoors and sleeping on the ground in a tent each night and walking alone through the wilderness all day almost every day had come to feel like my normal life, but it had. It was the idea of not doing it that scared me.” As the unread pages dwindled, I started to feel sad that her journey was coming to an end. I felt like I’d been there with her and I wanted her to keep walking all the way to Canada! And I swear, I felt like I was ready to strap on a backpack, freeze dry some food, and hit the trail!
There it is…the first post by The Book Broad. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope it inspires you to read this amazing book.
Next up, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Horror movie addicts like me will recognize this title from the Swedish movie of the same name and/or the American movie version called Let Me In. It’s a vampire story, but I guarantee it isn’t a typical vampire story.