Eye-opening memoir: Tragedy, endurance and survival

A wilderness journey of self-discovery makes a compelling read, finds Nicky Pellegrino.

Cheryl Strayed's unsentimental, yet often funny, tone complements her fluid prose, as she delivers her brave and inspiring story. Photo / Joni Kabana
Cheryl Strayed's unsentimental, yet often funny, tone complements her fluid prose, as she delivers her brave and inspiring story. Photo / Joni Kabana

Talk about being on a roll.

US writer Cheryl Strayed's latest book, Wild: A Journey From Lost To Found (Atlantic, $36.99), has been chosen by Oprah's Book Club, optioned for a film by Reese Witherspoon and is now being published around the world.

A biographical adventure in the same vein as Eat, Pray, Love, but with heaps more grit and a great deal less self-indulgence, this is a brave and inspiring story.

At 26, Strayed found herself at a crossroads in her young life.

She had lost her mother very suddenly to cancer, her family and marriage had disintegrated, and she was in danger of self-destructing when she made an impulsive decision.

Purely on the basis of a guidebook she came across while at her lowest ebb, and feeling a desperate urge to change back into the person she thought herself to be, she decided to spend three months on her own hiking over more than 1600km of wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon.

Strayed was unfit and ill prepared.

She had never hiked before, her backpack was so heavy she could barely lift it, her boots lacerated her feet and ahead lay unfriendly weather, wildlife and strangers.

She proceeded at crawling pace, at one point literally crawling, but still bit-by-bit inching her way forward towards salvation.

It sounds glib - take a journey, heal yourself - but this is no shallow or disinfected memoir.

Strayed is brutally upfront about everything, from her drug use to her promiscuity and grief.

She is also self-deprecating, funny and ironic.

Possibly it helps that she's now in her 40s and writing with the different perspective maturity brings ... although I did wonder how she could remember details of events and her reactions with so much clarity.

Still, there's nothing tricksy about Wild, it's a fairly straightforward account of Strayed's experience of getting from A to B in the great outdoors and under her own steam. Nor did anything especially dramatic happen while she was walking the trail.

All the drama is in her everyday struggle for survival. I can't say the book tempted me to take up long-distance hiking.

Going days without a shower, surviving on dehydrated food, encountering rattle snakes and bears ... this was a feat of endurance rather than a pleasure walk.

But for Strayed, it provided a chance to deal with her rage and pain, to learn how to be alone, and ultimately to face living in the world again.

There were friendships forged along the trail; good times among the long stretches of solitude; and Strayed crafts from it all a compelling story.

Her prose is fluid and pacey, her tone unsentimental and often funny.

If I had to go on a quest to find myself I would far rather do it with doughty, determined Strayed than Eat, Pray, Love's whiney, over-thinker, Elizabeth Gilbert.

- Herald on Sunday

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