Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Part I. THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS
If I had to draw a map of those four-plus years to illustrate the time between the day of my mother’s death and the day I began my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, the map would be a confusion of lines in all directions, like a crackling Fourth of July sparkler with Minnesota at its inevitable center. To Texas and back. To New York City and back. To New Mexico and Arizona and Nevada and California and Oregon and back. To Wyoming and back. To Portland, Oregon, and back. To Portland and back again. And again. But those lines wouldn’t tell the story. The map would illuminate all the places I ran to, but not all the ways I tried to stay. It wouldn’t show you how in the months after my mother died, I attempted—and failed—to fill in for her in an effort to keep my family together. Or how I’d struggled to save my marriage, even while I was dooming it with my lies. It would only seem like that rough star, its every bright line shooting out.
By the time I arrived in the town of Mojave, California, on the night before I began hiking the PCT, I’d shot out of Minnesota for the last time. I’d even told my mother that, not that she could hear. I’d sat in the flowerbed in the woods on our land, where Eddie, Paul, my siblings, and I had mixed her ashes in with the dirt and laid a tombstone, and explained to her that I wasn’t going to be around to tend her grave anymore. Which meant that no one would. I finally had no choice but to leave her grave to go back to the weeds and blown-down tree branches and fallen pinecones. To snow and whatever the ants and deer and black bears and ground wasps wanted to do with her. I lay down in the mother ash dirt among the crocuses and told her it was okay. That I’d surrendered. That since she died, everything had changed. Things she couldn’t have imagined and wouldn’t have guessed. My words came out low and steadfast. I was so sad it felt as if someone were choking me, and yet it seemed my whole life depended on my getting those words out. She would always be my mother, I told her, but I had to go. She wasn’t there for me in that flowerbed anymore anyway, I explained. I’d put her somewhere else. The only place I could reach her. In me.
The next day I left Minnesota forever. I was going to hike the PCT.
It was the first week of June. I drove to Portland in my 1979 Chevy Luv pickup truck loaded with a dozen boxes filled with dehydrated food and backpacking supplies. I’d spent the previous weeks compiling them, addressing each box to myself at places I’d never been, stops along the PCT with evocative names like Echo Lake and Soda Springs, Burney Falls and Seiad Valley. I left my truck and the boxes with my friend Lisa in Portland—she’d be mailing the boxes to me throughout the summer—and boarded a plane to Los Angeles, then caught a ride to Mojave with the brother of a friend.
We pulled into town in the early evening, the sun dipping into the Tehachapi Mountains a dozen miles behind us to the west. Mountains I’d be hiking the next day. The town of Mojave is at an altitude of nearly 2,800 feet, though it felt to me as if I were at the bottom of something instead, the signs for gas stations, restaurants, and motels rising higher than the highest tree.
“You can stop here,” I said to the man who’d driven me from LA, gesturing to an old-style neon sign that said WHITE’S MOTEL with the word TELEVISION blazing yellow above it and VACANCY in pink beneath. By the worn look of the building, I guessed it was the cheapest place in town. Perfect for me.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said once we’d pulled into the lot.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and looked at me. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yes,” I replied with false confidence. “I’ve traveled alone a lot.” I got out with my backpack and two oversized plastic department store bags full of things. I’d meant to take everything from the bags and fit it into my backpack before leaving Portland, but I hadn’t had the time. I’d brought the bags here instead. I’d get everything together in my room.
“Good luck,” said the man.
I watched him drive away. The hot air tasted like dust, the dry wind whipping my hair into my eyes. The parking lot was a field of tiny white pebbles cemented into place; the motel, a long row of doors and windows shuttered by shabby curtains. I slung my backpack over my shoulders and gathered the bags. It seemed strange to have only these things. I felt suddenly exposed, less exuberant than I had thought I would. I’d spent the past six months imagining this moment, but now that it was here—now that I was only a dozen miles from the PCT itself—it seemed less vivid than it had in my imaginings, as if I were in a dream, my every thought liquid slow, propelled by will rather than instinct. Go inside, I had to tell myself before I could move toward the motel office. Ask for a room.
“It’s eighteen dollars,” said the old woman who stood behind the counter. With rude emphasis, she looked past me, out the glass door through which I’d entered moments before. “Unless you’ve got a companion. It’s more for two.”
“I don’t have a companion,” I said, and blushed—it was only when I was telling the truth that I felt as if I were lying. “That guy was just dropping me off.”
“It’s eighteen dollars for now, then,” she replied, “but if a companion joins you, you’ll have to pay more.”
“A companion won’t be joining me,” I said evenly. I pulled a twenty-dollar bill from the pocket of my shorts and slid it across the counter to her. She took my money and handed me two dollars and a card to fill out with a pen attached to a bead chain. “I’m on foot, so I can’t do the car section,” I said, gesturing to the form. I smiled, but she didn’t smile back. “Also—I don’t really have an address. I’m traveling, so I—”
“Write down the address you’ll be returning to,” she said.
“See, that’s the thing. I’m not sure where I’ll live afterwards because—”
“Your folks, then,” she barked. “Wherever home is.”
“Okay,” I said, and wrote Eddie’s address, though in truth my connection to Eddie in the four years since my mother died had become so pained and distant I couldn’t rightly consider him my stepfather anymore. I had no “home,” even though the house we built still stood. Leif and Karen and I were inextricably bound as siblings, but we spoke and saw one another rarely, our lives profoundly different. Paul and I had finalized our divorce the month before, after a harrowing yearlong separation. I had beloved friends whom I sometimes referred to as family, but our commitments to each other were informal and intermittent, more familial in word than in deed. Blood is thicker than water, my mother had always said when I was growing up, a sentiment I’d often disputed. But it turned out that it didn’t matter whether she was right or wrong. They both flowed out of my cupped palms.
“Here you are,” I said to the woman, sliding the form across the counter in her direction, though she didn’t turn to me for several moments. She was watching a small television that sat on a table behind the counter. The evening news. Something about the O. J. Simpson trial.
“Do you think he’s guilty?” she asked, still looking at the TV.
“It seems like it, but it’s too soon to know, I guess. We don’t have all the information yet.”
“Of course he did it!” she shouted.
When she finally gave me a key, I walked across the parking lot to a door at the far end of the building, unlocked it and went inside, and set my things down and sat on the soft bed. I was in the Mojave Desert, but the room was strangely dank, smelling of wet carpet and Lysol. A vented white metal box in the corner roared to life—a swamp cooler that blew icy air for a few minutes and then turned itself off with a dramatic clatter that only exacerbated my sense of uneasy solitude.
I thought about going out and finding myself a companion. It was such an easy thing to do. The previous years had been a veritable feast of one- and two- and three-night stands. They seemed so ridiculous to me now, all that intimacy with people I didn’t love, and yet still I ached for the simple sensation of a body pressed against mine, obliterating everything else. I stood up from the bed to shake off the longing, to stop my mind from its hungry whir: I could go to a bar. I could let a man buy me a drink. We could be back here in a flash.
Just behind that longing was the urge to call Paul. He was my ex-husband now, but he was still my best friend. As much as I’d pulled away from him in the years after my mother’s death, I’d also leaned hard into him. In the midst of my mostly silent agonizing over our marriage, we’d had good times, been, in oddly real ways, a happy couple.
The vented metal box in the corner turned itself on again and I went to stand before it, letting the frigid air blow against my bare legs. I was dressed in the clothes I’d been wearing since I’d left Portland the night before, every last thing brand-new. It was my hiking outfit and in it I felt a bit foreign, like someone I hadn’t yet become. Wool socks beneath a pair of leather hiking boots with metal fasts. Navy blue shorts with important-looking pockets that closed with Velcro tabs. Underwear made of a special quick-dry fabric and a plain white T-shirt over a sports bra.
They were among the many things I’d spent the winter and spring saving up my money to buy, working as many shifts as I could get at the restaurant where I waited tables. When I’d purchased them, they hadn’t felt foreign to me. In spite of my recent forays into edgy urban life, I was easily someone who could be described as outdoorsy. I had, after all, spent my teen years roughing it in the Minnesota northwoods. My family vacations had always involved some form of camping, and so had the trips I’d taken with Paul or alone or with friends. I’d slept in the back of my truck, camped out in parks and national forests more times than I could count. But now, here, having only these clothes at hand, I felt suddenly like a fraud. In the six months since I’d decided to hike the PCT, I’d had at least a dozen conversations in which I explained why this trip was a good idea and how well suited I was to the challenge. But now, alone in my room at White’s Motel, I knew there was no denying the fact that I was on shaky ground.
“Perhaps you should try a shorter trip first,” Paul had suggested when I told him about my plan during one of our should-we-stay-together-or-get-divorced discussions several months before.
“Why?” I’d asked with irritation. “Don’t you think I can hack it?”
“It isn’t that,” he said. “It’s only that you’ve never gone backpacking, as far as I know.”
“I’ve gone backpacking!” I’d said indignantly, though he was right: I hadn’t. In spite of all the things I’d done that struck me as related to backpacking, I’d never actually walked into the wilderness with a backpack on and spent the night. Not even once.
I’ve never gone backpacking! I thought with a rueful hilarity now. I looked suddenly at my pack and the plastic bags I’d toted with me from Portland that held things I hadn’t yet taken from their packaging. My backpack was forest green and trimmed with black, its body composed of three large compartments rimmed by fat pockets of mesh and nylon that sat on either side like big ears. It stood of its own volition, supported by the unique plastic shelf that jutted out along its bottom. That it stood like that instead of slumping over onto its side as other packs did provided me a small, strange comfort. I went to it and touched its top as if I were caressing a child’s head. A month ago, I’d been firmly advised to pack my backpack just as I would on my hike and take it on a trial run. I’d meant to do it before I left Minneapolis, and then I’d meant to do it once I got to Portland. But I hadn’t. My trial run would be tomorrow—my first day on the trail.
I reached into one of the plastic bags and pulled out an orange whistle, whose packaging proclaimed it to be “the world’s loudest.” I ripped it open and held the whistle up by its yellow lanyard, then put it around my neck, as if I were a coach. Was I supposed to hike wearing it like this? It seemed silly, but I didn’t know. Like so much else, when I’d purchased the world’s loudest whistle, I hadn’t thought it all the way through. I took it off and tied it to the frame of my pack, so it would dangle over my shoulder when I hiked. There, it would be easy to reach, should I need it.
Would I need it? I wondered meekly, bleakly, flopping down on the bed. It was well past dinnertime, but I was too anxious to feel hungry, my aloneness an uncomfortable thunk that filled my gut.
“You finally got what you wanted,” Paul had said when we bade each other goodbye in Minneapolis ten days before.
“What’s that?” I’d asked.
“To be alone,” he replied, and smiled, though I could only nod uncertainly.
It had been what I wanted, though alone wasn’t quite it. What I had to have when it came to love was beyond explanation, it seemed. The end of my marriage was a great unraveling that began with a letter that arrived a week after my mother’s death, though its beginnings went back further than that.
The letter wasn’t for me. It was for Paul. Fresh as my grief was, I still dashed excitedly into our bedroom and handed it to him when I saw the return address. It was from the New School in New York City. In another lifetime—only three months before, in the days before I learned my mother had cancer—I’d helped him apply to a PhD program in political philosophy. Back in mid-January, the idea of living in New York City had seemed like the most exciting thing in the world. But now, in late March—as he ripped the letter open and exclaimed that he’d been accepted, as I embraced him and in every way seemed to be celebrating this good news—I felt myself splitting in two. There was the woman I was before my mom died and the one I was now, my old life sitting on the surface of me like a bruise. The real me was beneath that, pulsing under all the things I used to think I knew. How I’d finish my BA in June and a couple of months later, off we’d go. How we’d rent an apartment in the East Village or Park Slope—places I’d only imagined and read about. How I’d wear funky ponchos with adorable knitted hats and cool boots while becoming a writer in the same romantic, down-and-out way that so many of my literary heroes and heroines had.
All of that was impossible now, regardless of what the letter said. My mom was dead. My mom was dead. My mom was dead. Everything I ever imagined about myself had disappeared into the crack of her last breath.
I couldn’t leave Minnesota. My family needed me. Who would help Leif finish growing up? Who would be there for Eddie in his loneliness? Who would make Thanksgiving dinner and carry on our family traditions? Someone had to keep what remained of our family together. And that someone had to be me. I owed at least that much to my mother.
“You should go without me,” I said to Paul as he held the letter. And I said it again and again as we talked throughout the next weeks, my conviction growing by the day. Part of me was terrified by the idea of him leaving me; another part of me desperately hoped he would. If he left, the door of our marriage would swing shut without my having to kick it. I would be free and nothing would be my fault. I loved him, but I’d been impetuous and nineteen when we’d wed; not remotely ready to commit myself to another person, no matter how dear he was. Though I’d had attractions to other men since shortly after we married, I’d kept them in check. But I couldn’t do that anymore. My grief obliterated my ability to hold back. So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself?
My mom had been dead a week when I kissed another man. And another a week after that. I only made out with them and the others that followed—vowing not to cross a sexual line that held some meaning to me—but still I knew I was wrong to cheat and lie. I felt trapped by my own inability to either leave Paul or stay true, so I waited for him to leave me, to go off to graduate school alone, though of course he refused.
He deferred his admission for a year and we stayed in Minnesota so I could be near my family, though my nearness in the year that followed my mother’s death accomplished little. It turned out I wasn’t able to keep my family together. I wasn’t my mom. It was only after her death that I realized who she was: the apparently magical force at the center of our family who’d kept us all invisibly spinning in the powerful orbit around her. Without her, Eddie slowly became a stranger. Leif and Karen and I drifted into our own lives. Hard as I fought for it to be otherwise, finally I had to admit it too: without my mother, we weren’t what we’d been; we were four people floating separately among the flotsam of our grief, connected by only the thinnest rope. I never did make that Thanksgiving dinner. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around eight months after my mom died, my family was something I spoke of in the past tense.
So when Paul and I finally moved to New York City a year after we had originally intended to, I was happy to go. There, I could have a fresh start. I would stop messing around with men. I would stop grieving so fiercely. I would stop raging over the family I used to have. I would be a writer who lived in New York City. I would walk around wearing cool boots and an adorable knitted hat.
It didn’t go that way. I was who I was: the same woman who pulsed beneath the bruise of her old life, only now I was somewhere else.
During the day I wrote stories; at night I waited tables and made out with one of the two men I was simultaneously not crossing the line with. We’d lived in New York only a month when Paul dropped out of graduate school, deciding he wanted to play guitar instead. Six months later, we left altogether, returning briefly to Minnesota before departing on a months-long working road trip all across the West, making a wide circle that included the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, Big Sur and San Francisco. At trip’s end in late spring, we landed in Portland and found restaurant jobs, staying first with my friend Lisa in her tiny apartment and then on a farm ten miles outside the city, where—in exchange for looking after a goat and a cat and a covey of exotic game hens—we got to live rent-free for the summer. We pulled the futon from our truck and slept on it in the living room under a big wide window that looked out over a filbert orchard. We took long walks and picked berries and made love. I can do this, I thought. I can be Paul’s wife.
But again I was wrong. I could only be who it seemed I had to be. Only now more so. I didn’t even remember the woman I was before my life had split in two. Living in that little farmhouse on the edge of Portland, a few months past the second anniversary of my mother’s death, I wasn’t worried about crossing the line anymore. When Paul accepted a job offer in Minneapolis that required him to return to Minnesota midway through our exotic hen-sitting gig, I stayed behind in Oregon and fucked the ex-boyfriend of the woman who owned the exotic hens. I fucked a cook at the restaurant where I’d picked up a job waiting tables. I fucked a massage therapist who gave me a piece of banana cream pie and a free massage. All three of them over the span of five days.
It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again. To cure me of myself. At summer’s end, when I returned to Minneapolis to live with Paul, I believed I had. I thought I was different, better, done. And I was for a time, sailing faithfully through the autumn and into the new year. Then I had another affair. I knew I was at the end of a line. I couldn’t bear myself any longer. I had to finally speak the words to Paul that would tear my life apart. Not that I didn’t love him. But that I had to be alone, though I didn’t know why.
My mom had been dead three years.
When I said all the things I had to say, we both fell onto the floor and sobbed. The next day, Paul moved out. Slowly we told our friends that we were splitting up. We hoped we could work it out, we said. We were not necessarily going to get divorced. First, they were in disbelief—we’d seemed so happy, they all said. Next, they were mad—not at us, but at me. One of my dearest friends took the photograph of me she kept in a frame, ripped it in half, and mailed it to me. Another made out with Paul. When I was hurt and jealous about this, I was told by another friend that this was exactly what I deserved: a taste of my own medicine. I couldn’t rightfully disagree, but still my heart was broken. I lay alone on our futon feeling myself almost levitate from pain.
Three months into our separation, we were still in a torturous limbo. I wanted neither to get back together with Paul nor to get divorced. I wanted to be two people so I could do both. Paul was dating a smattering of women, but I was suddenly celibate. Now that I’d smashed up my marriage over sex, sex was the furthest thing from my mind.
“You need to get the hell out of Minneapolis,” said my friend Lisa during one of our late-night heartbreak conversations. “Come visit me in Portland,” she said.
Within the week, I quit my waitressing job, loaded up my truck, and drove west, traveling the same route I’d take exactly one year later on my way to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
By the time I reached Montana, I knew I’d done the right thing—the wide green land visible for miles outside my windshield, the sky going on even farther. The city of Portland flickered beyond, out of sight. It would be my luscious escape, if only for a brief time. There, I’d leave my troubles behind, I thought.
Instead, I only found more.