Archive | 12:29 PM

Book Club Reflection: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

4 Mar

I had highly anticipated our group discussion of Wild by Cheryl Strayed. If you recall, I wrote a highly enthusiastic review of it really shortly after we were assigned the book. I’ve been giddy for the group meeting ever since!

Mostly everyone in our group enjoyed the book. Strayed did a wonderful job at melding her back story and her adventure on the hike together so that the flashbacks never seemed sudden or out-of-place. A lot of us enjoyed how she started the book with the scene in which she loses her shoe over the side of a cliff because it gave us a lot of tension. As we followed her on the start of her journey, we were already weary of a conflict she was going to face down the road.

Despite this, we didn’t find Strayed very likeable as a person. We wanted to empathize with her, but she was in such a unique situation that none of us could relate to her. I personally found I understood her better by the end. One thing that bothered us was that her decisions seemed so reckless, especially the way she would spend the little money she had on the trail. Using $18 of $20 to buy dinner at one stop? That seems a bit over the top.

There were more than a few things she did that seemed foolish to us. The most obvious is the amount of stuff she carried. When Albert went through her pack, there was so much that seemed obviously unnecessary and as she hiked, the things she didn’t have became very apparent. Though she got a lot of advice from the guys are REI, she really should have done some more research about the conditions she would be hiking in and the terrain she would cover. Those seemed to be her weaknesses. Though she admits she should have practiced with the weight, we still faulted her for not listening to the most basic advice. Not breaking in her shoes? Rookie traveler mistake; I wouldn’t go on a weekend trip with shoes I hadn’t broken in, yet alone a three-month trek the width of the US.

One thing we thought she should have brought and didn’t was something more to protect herself. Besides the loud whistle, she didn’t have much and I think it became obvious when the day-hiker seemed sexually aggressive toward her. Someone from our group suggested that mace or pepper spray could have been a good idea.

Someone volunteered that the only thing she did seem prepared for was to find a hook-up on the trail. Strayed had brought a roll of condoms with her for the hike. Having commented that the PCT is one of the lesser-hiked trails in the US, this seemed a strange thing to pack. I don’t think she even met enough men to use one for each. But then when she did actually need one, she was too embarrassed of her scabs to even consider using it. What an irony that is.

Her time with Jonathan the Bartender was probably not the highlight of her life, but it was something that Strayed didn’t try to hide. She doesn’t seem at all embarrassed by the casual sex that she admits to having. There’s really not anything about her time on the trail she seems embarrassed about. We wondered if she’s really proud of the things she did; if this book is one she would want her children to read. If I’d written it, I wouldn’t want my offspring to read it.

All of the people who Strayed met on the trail were very giving, which was very refreshing after hearing multiple news stories about how those trying to help someone in need will frequently fall victim to assault. We felt that in a situation like hiking, people are generally nicer to those they fun into. Ed, the trail angle, was my favorite example, and one of our favorite characters, along with Jonathan. Because they have the same shared experience, they feel a sense of camaraderie that strangers wouldn’t feel otherwise. Though, we felt the others on the trail didn’t have the same drive as Cheryl; they had other lives to go back to, options they could take if the trail defeated them. Strayed was very stranded on the trail.

We questioned why the PCT seemed attractive to Strayed at that stage in her life. Now, as a wife and mother, we doubt that she would be so willing to go hiking alone for three months. We think she wanted to get as far from her life as she could; she was unhappy with her divorce and felt she had nothing left in Minnesota that was worth sticking around for. She was desperate to do something on her own and hiking alone is probably one of the most solitary things a person can do. We believe she wanted to do it as a sort of confidence booster as well. We felt she’d lost a lot of faith in herself when her mother passed and that hiking alone helped boost her self-esteem. One of our members suggested that she might have done the hike to have something to write about, being a writer after all. Whatever her motivation, we were all amazed she never gave up.

Strayed seems to pinpoint her reason for going as the death of her mother. We felt that her mother was the only thing giving her life direction before she got sick. Without the rudder of her mother to hold her on course, Strayed didn’t have a paddle to steer with. She gave up her life to grieve for her mother. Having the ability to stop living to grieve is a luxury and after dropping out of school and getting a divorce, she couldn’t afford that luxury any longer. Her time on the trail finally gave her the time to grieve. She was so angry on her mother’s 50th birthday, anger being the second stage of grief, a long-awaited step for Strayed to take.

Even before her mother’s passing, Strayed seemed a little off the beaten trail. Her mom and she didn’t have the most stable relationship, either. Her mom was somewhat in-and-out of her life, never around because she had to work and then coddling her children when she could afford to. We never understood her mother’s financial responsibility, which might explain Cheryl’s recklessness as well. How could she insist that she needed a horse when her family couldn’t afford running water?

Strayed never seemed to take responsibility for her actions, something she may have gotten from her mother. She didn’t finish college, even though she was only one class from graduating. Now, we see that she’s gone back to finish it, but at the time it wasn’t something that crossed her mind. Her younger brother, Leif, was only eighteen when their mother died and Cheryl didn’t provide comfort or any means to him when he was left alone. The thing that bothered our group the most was how she abandoned her relationship with Paul. She began acting like he didn’t exist or matter, cheating on him with every chance she had. Being on the trail forced her to take responsibility for her actions.

We debated if the hike helped her get over Paul and our consensus was that she didn’t need to get over him, he needed to get over her more than anything. They were still very involved in each other’s lives after the divorce, something that I think hurt Paul more than Cheryl. I’m glad that they were able to move on, but I still think it’s weird that they got ‘divorce tattoos.’

One of the reviews we saw for the book called it ‘funny,’ but not many of our group agreed with that statement. There were a few funny moments, when she urinated on the road because there was no one around and seconds later a car went by being one example. We also laughed when she ran into the stoned hippies looking for a music festival, when she was covered in mini frogs, and when she shook someone’s hand minutes after putting a natural sponge in for a tampon. Overall, we didn’t find it that funny.

One of our members did think there were a few eerie moments that almost seemed supernatural. The first was when she saw a fox on the trail and called out to it, ‘Mom!’ It felt like she had felt the presence of her mother in the animal. The other was when the Swiss woman said she was her calling to rub Cheryl’s feet (244). I think this reflects Strayed’s sentiment that she was supposed to be hiking the trail.

Someone compared this book to Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods. I’ve never read Bryson, but I’ve been told this title is very funny; probably as funny as the lone reviewer found Strayed’s book to be. It got me thinking a lot about how I’d like to go hiking, but geographically it would make more sense for me to hike on the Appalachian Trail. One of our members had done what’s called ‘hut hiking’ on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. I don’t know about you, Reader, but I think this looks incredible.

There is a moving coming out soon based on this book with Reese Witherspoon playing Cheryl. We talked about how we’d expected someone younger, but that movie magic can take off years. We pictured someone more like Ellen Page, Amy Adams, or even Dakota Fanning to play the role. Who do you think would be good in the role?

Our next book for this group is Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding which I’m currently listening to on my phone. I think that will make for a wonderful discussion as well.

Until next time, write on.