At 22 years old, Cheryl Strayed lost her mother to cancer, and she also began to lose herself. As she spiraled downward, turning to men and drugs for temporary pleasure, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) caught her in her fall. While standing in line at REI, she read a description of the PCT on the back of a guidebook, and while gazing at the photograph of the vast trail, she says that something seemed to "break me open."
As readers travel through the wilderness with Strayed in her memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, we witness the ability of nature to transform and heal anyone who is brave enough to take it on.
Now a year after the book's release, the New York Times bestselling author and Dear Sugar columnist talks to Sierra about her life after Wild, why she considers herself an experimentalist, and how it feels to be superwoman. --interview by Brittany Johnson
In your book, Wild, you mention that you are an experimentalist — the kind of girl that says yes instead of no. Is that still true?
That is still completely and utterly true. In my youth, I had to reel that in when it came to sex, love, romance, and now in my 40s it is about how to choose wisely the opportunities that I take as a writer. Like, I said yes to writing the Dear Sugar column, I thought, "What the hell, I don’t know anything about giving advice." But it led to a wonderful thing.
What is the last thing you said yes to and regretted?
I feel mixed about it. I get so busy. The irony — I have written this book about how a long walk is good for the spirit and now I can barely find time to take a 15-minute walk around my neighborhood. But I love to be generous to other writers. Just now it’s hard because everyone I have ever met and everyone that I’ve never met wants me to read their book and support them.
The Pacific Crest Trail is 1,100 miles, more than I even want to drive. What convinced you to hike it?
I was in my 20s and was at this real bottom point in my life. After my mother died, I lost my whole family. I turned to the wilderness as a way of gathering myself. In my grief, I had done a bunch of stuff, taken a lot of risks that were self-destructive and dangerous and not healthy. My hike was to test myself against something that was risky but also really healthy.
Instead of taking away my sprit and taking away my strength — the way that the sex and the drugs were doing — getting that back and building myself back up.
You didn't see another human being for the first eight days of your hike. Did you talk to yourself a lot?
That was really intense! To go eight days without seeing a person. . . . I could have come off the trail after those 8 days and been like, okay I went through something! I talked to myself a little bit. But there was a long conversation going on in my head. Mostly, "What the hell have I gotten myself into."
You say in Wild that the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake on the cover of a PCT guidebook seemed to “break you open.” You had seen lakes before, what was so intense about this picture?