Wild: From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed
What is it about hiking? A hike is not a walk though it could be, given the mechanical similarities between walking and hiking. Both actions are composed of steps taken at a pace that is not so fast that you begin to run. But to anyone who’s ever hiked, it’s true: hiking is not walking, not in the least.
You can walk in heels on a city street; but with hiking, you need a heavy boot to handle the terrain. The smell of melting pine pitch and dirt and not a trace of exhaust. The heavy thinness of oxygen-bare air of high altitude. The danger of particular obstacles: of roots and rocks; mud and snow melt and, at the higher elevations, snow itself.
And what are those higher elevations? They are the Sierra Nevada Range and the Cascade Range that from a part– not the whole– of the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT. It is the terrain Cheryl Strayed sought after her mother died, abruptly, from cancer, and her remaining family–having no present father– disperses. The PCT: the place she’ll search out after her many-year marriage to young love, Paul, fails after numerous affairs in which Cheryl attempts to find comfort in the arms of strange men– a comfort that is no comfort, really. But that will take miles to realize.
The PCT, though, is a place she will go after a habit of taking heroin and a relationship tied up into the precarious draw of addiction. And the only place that she can place herself in when every other place fails.
I know this trail well. I seek it. The High Sierra of the PCT. The place I flee to every year to escape walking, a metaphor, perhaps, for the easy life we sometimes fall into without knowing how. And the only way to escape is to not only stop walking, but to hike.
Cheryl Strayed describes the Sierra Nevada range as“… a single uptilted block of the earth’s crust. It’s western slope comprises 90 percent of the range, the peaks gradually descending to the fertile valleys that eventually give way to the California coast– which parallels the PCT roughly two hundred miles to the west for most of the way. The eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada is entirely different: a sharp escarpment that drops abruptly down to a flat plain desert that runs all the way to the Great Basin in Nevada.”
I grew up staring at that eastern escarpment for practically my whole life; the steep ridges that seemed to hold the vast Great Basin in check from stretching too far, covering the entire world.
Mountains were not strange things to me: they were the place my mom and I fled to when our domestic life became too much for us to handle. The most dramatic of these escapes occurred when I was ten and my little sister, two. We were living in my stepfather’s mother’s house: a small brick affair that made us all share nearly every room and that made me share a bed with my sister since the room we were in could only handle one.
My mom had been trying to clean, but nothing inside was responding. Perhaps if the furniture had been our own, she might have gleaned some satisfaction. But this was the house my stepfather grew up in; the odd stain here and there, memories of a dark and working household. The appliances, ones that made meals no one remembered anymore. It was the vacuuming, though, that drove her wild. The way the carpet refused to rid itself of the dirt deposited there by years.
One day, she piled my sister and I into her Ford Bronco and drove like one might escaping a prison. We drove and drove until sage was replaced by pine tree and the lingering suggestions of snow since it was early spring. There, she found a single track that meandered into a forest of dappled shadow-light. Twisting through the trunks whose bark smelled sweet like vanilla, we were led to a rushing creek cradled in a forgotten mountain canyon one afternoon, among many like it.
These were the trails we stepped over, tripping our way to creeks and the aspens that turned yellow and umber in Fall. Streams whose sounds erased whatever sounds we’d heard at home, from the stains we’d too, accumulate, in time.
So, I learned to understand the mountains as a haven from the desert below, where all could be seen and heard and remembered in a vast and stark flatness soiled in dirt.
Cheryl Strayed begins her memoir, Wild with: “My solo three month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings.” To anyone who has ever hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, this is an essential truth: the trail, like Cheryl’s narrative, like life, has more than one “beginning.”
It depends where you decide to step onto the dirt footpath that traces the ridge of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges; where it continues far North, beyond our country’s borders, through Canada, ending in the far-North of Alaska. Or, to the South in the dry expanse of the creosote-covered Mojave, where even the heat creates a ridge, visible above the sand.
Is Strayed’s beginning her mother’s death? Or, is mine when my mother first took me to the High Sierra when we lived in a house that was, in no way, our own?
Or, are beginnings more complicated?
No matter where you begin, the trail follows the spine formed by tectonic plates far beneath the Pacific ocean, crushing land in waves deeper than the ocean’s depths, for far longer than human time.
Like Cheryl’s narrator, I, too, was 26 when I found myself on the Pacific Crest Trail. I discovered it by hearsay: rumors hikers told me while I was running up Cathedral Peak. They told me there was a trail that stretched on forever, when I’d admitted I was frustrated with Tahoe’s meandering tracks through the Sierra forest which made runs longer than twenty miles a considerable act of navigation and always in the Celtic knot of circles.
Up Donner Summit in late June that year, I followed the obscure directions I had memorized. Take the exit off I-80 toward Boreal, a ski resort, looking like a vertical landing strip of bare earth with the lack of snow. Then, past the employee housing– dark brown boxes of buildings– to a parking lot, a dirty restroom, and a trailhead that would lead to the PCT.
No wider than my body, it was a dirt meandering thing: a trail that required my constant attention or it would mislead me into the forest and I’d have to retrace my steps in order to find where I’d run wrong.
Running the PCT isn’t truly running. In fact, I’m not quite sure how you’d describe it. It’s a fast hike, perhaps, on the rare level sections that twist and turn between granite boulders; it’s a repeated hopping over tiny creeks–traces of winter watershed even in the heat of summer from snowmelt. Or, it’s heart-breaking climb up ascents that you might as well walk, since walking these mountains is faster than running them. Or the steep descents; downhill pitches so fierce, it’s all a body can do to keep gravity from cracking your head open on a granite rock.
It is a layer of dust that would cover my calves in nude-tones like nylons I would wash away, once safe at home. It was the mud that I always stepped in turning the white of my shoes to the gray-brown of mountain-camouflage. The scrapes from high-altitude vegetation scratching my skin as I ran by. The bruises from many falls, coloring my skin purple and dark like the mountain sky at night. The snap of a rolled ankle that would sting for the first few steps and then loosen up again because you just can’t stop and expect the trail to heal you.
It was pitch from the pine trees in my hair, which made me cut it short; skin dry and sun-cracked from the thin, high mountain air. And, it was the blackened toenails of a sub-cuticle blood blister that would mean my nail was ready to fall off as though I was reptilian and covered in scales.
Unlike my day-forays onto this elemental world of the PCT, Strayed strays– and stays– on the PCT, hiking a good part of its entirety the year she was 26.
Strayed, too, remarks on the uniqueness of motion on the PCT. “What is hiking but walking, after all?” she asks. “….It turns out, [it] is not very much like walking at all. [It] resembles walking less than it does hell.” It’s a statement she later qualifies: “Like I was building with limbs, unmoored from my foundation, careening through the wilderness.” Foundations while in motion: one of the many contradictions her narrative uncovers as she hikes from Mojave, to Lone Pine, to Beldon Town, to Crater Lake, ending her journey at the Bridge of the Gods at Oregon’s northern border. She missed only the section that would be my home, the High Sierra, because the snows were thick the year she decided to hike her hike, one of her many beginnings.
“It was me against the PCT when it came to toenails,” she writes. At first, it’s a battle she believes she’ll win, having a full ten as she sets off, alone. But for those who know the life of the trail, it’s a battle akin to the rock in the path of watershed; a slow wearing away, an erosion beneath the constant thrust of the natural processes of the natural world. It’s a battle she’ll lose– that I lose–year and year again, but not before she loses her hiking boots– one of many obstacles this narrator is forced to overcome.
One of her literary predecessors, John Muir (who would famously– insanely– climb up an evergreen on the highest peak of a mountain to observe a storm in the high Sierra) would observe from his undulating perch that “We hear much nowadays concerning the universal struggle for existence, but no struggle in the common meaning of the word was manifest here; no recognition of danger by any tree; no deprecation but rather an invincible gladness as remote from exultation as fear.” The PCT: a place where extremes are set side-by side: fear and exultation, hotness and chill, sun and shadow; life and death; toenails and no toenails at all.
Or it’s Strayed herself: remembering the death of her mother’s mare, Lady, a horse she had loved. How, years following her mother’s death, she had asked her stepfather to put Lady down by calling the local veterinarian; and then, how Lady wasn’t put down at all, but shot again and again by the narrator’s brother who had no clue of how to ease another form of suffering humanely. “There is no such thing as one clean shot,” the narrator recalls, which is perhaps another reason for her need to hike so many miles, alone.
It is not by accident that Strayed’s memoir begins with the swift death of her mother to cancer. It’s a death that haunts nearly every page and nearly every moment on the trail. The death of the narrator’s mother is in constant relief to the violent day-to-day battles she endures both from within and without: a wild bull, a rattlesnake, the boots she purchased a half size too small that chew the flesh of her feet to tender bits.
When I’m on the PCT– or any trail in the Sierra Nevada– I always think of my mother. The mother who is not present, who could not possibly be since it’s taken me miles of running to get where I am. My mother isn’t dead, but then, she’s not the mother I have in my memory anymore, either: mothers rarely are. Instead, the trail makes me remember the one that led me to these remote places of extremes, the one who encouraged me to be wild and free. Perhaps this is why I became obsessed with the mountains: by summer, a long distance runner, and winter, the backcountry skier with skins on my skis, climbing to remote peaks up frozen white slopes, alone.
This is, I suspect, why Strayed hikes the PCT. It isn’t an escape: it’s a coming home, an understanding. Early in the text she describes the people in her life as the Band-Aids that blow away from her, off the trail, in the wind. It’s the trail that is her constant: the miles and the daily repetition remove the need for exterior salves: the need for a dependency on others. In the solitude and distance of a trail– the longest trail in the United States– Strayed comes to find solidity within herself.
The trail “shelters and shatters” Strayed who will endure blisters, lost toenails, dehydration, pennilessness and peril. She will befriend fellow hikers– most of them men– and be subject to men as a woman would in the wilderness alone. She will be called a hobo by an unlikely journalist who gives her a care package containing hygiene products, matches and a single can of cheap beer. She will inspire pity; she will inspire hope from a young Swiss woman who massages her feet outside a Natural Foods store, insisting Strayed is not merely hiking, but on a pilgrimage. But it is like the elements: she takes them all in, one by one, hiking– always, to keep moving forward– as memory after memory surfaces, as memories tend to do with distance.
And I, too, am drawn to what Muir called– and Strayed cites as–the Range of Light. I can’t help but think of it as a light that is not only celestial, but cerebral. A place where motion can bring enlightenment, and where memories can be distilled as those crisp black and white images Ansel Adams took of the Yosemite Valley; only in my mind, these photographs contain my mother my sister and I on that long-forgotten trail leading to nowhere in particular, except, perhaps, to the people we wanted to be; people that blew away like bandaids in the wind, disappearing into the glare of sunlight.