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.

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12 Responses to “Book Club Reflection: Wild by Cheryl Strayed”

  1. Jacqui Murray March 5, 2014 at 10:49 AM #

    Interesting read. I’ve never joined a book club, for the reason of reading and reviewing popular books. You gave me a great insight into how that works.

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    • Sam March 5, 2014 at 10:53 AM #

      I’m glad I could! I’m lucky that I’ve found book clubs that don’t always read the New York Times Best Seller list and let me read some lesser-known work. I like that much better.

      Like

  2. readingcook March 17, 2014 at 10:41 PM #

    I just finished reading this book,and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comments in this post. This is one of those books that begs for discussion, and I definitely found it here. You echoed some of my thoughts and added additional ones that definitely helped me gain a better appreciation and understanding of this book. I have referenced your link in my post on the book for just that reason.

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    • Sam March 18, 2014 at 8:06 AM #

      Thank you so much for your kind words! This book was really fun to discuss in our book club. Talking about memoirs always feels like gossiping about someone you don’t know. Strayed makes such interesting decisions and it was great to try to figure them out in a group setting. Thanks for linking and I’m glad you liked this book as much as I did.

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  3. chip hurst September 19, 2014 at 11:33 PM #

    I don’t usually do this but someone has to call this “Cheryl Strayed” out.

    I’m a thru hiker. A real thru hiker. I attempted the PCT in 2010 and made 2007 miles and left due to a severe sprain in my quad–ran out of time before the snow in Washington. I went back in 2012 and started at mile zero and completed the entire trail–2660 miles.

    So I am well familiar with the trail Cheryl described. My trail name was “Runningwolf.” You can find me on the pcta.org 2600 miler list of completion for 2012. And my trail name is on almost every register as “Runningwolf” along the way.

    Her story of “losing her shoe and then tossing the other one” is nonsense. 99.9% of the trail you could scurry down and get a lost shoe or trek pole. And the few ridges where you can’t weren’t close to where she claimed it to happen. And why would she not notice a loose shoe to begin with. And the terrain? She did not walk without shoes–her feet would have been torn to shreds.

    Where did she almost die of thirst? The longest stretches are thirty miles and level terrain in the desert. Is she trying to tell me she walked into these stretches with no water? I don’t buy it. There is a network of information where the water sources are. And trail angels. I can’t speak for trail angels 20 years ago but I missed a cache on a 29 miles stretch due to zoning after the Old Station supply. I was severely uncomfortable for about four hours. And then I was fine at the next creek. The stretch post Old Station is the worst–flat and sun baked. But it wasn’t the huge deal Cheryl makes these stretches look like.

    And your not alone and isolated. You run into hikers every day. Less than the AT but at least one or two. Worst case on injury–you sit down and wait. Someone will come along. This is not as scary as she makes it out to be nor as dangerous. Even for a novice hiker–and I knew plenty who had never even camped before and their journey wasn’t as dramatic as Strayed’s. And they did the whole thing, not less than half of it.

    1,100 miles from the Mojave to the Cascades? 1,100 miles would have taken you to the early part of Oregon. But then she states she skipped the impassable parts. They aren’t impassable. They are just hard with snow at times. I went through the record snow fall in the High Sierras in 2010 (later broken by 2011). And got through. That would be the difference between the thru hikers who can claim hardship and Strayed. And note we don’t get to rest a lot. We go a week to eight days or more, take a day off in a resupply point and then keep going–25 miles a day. What Strayed did was section hike and then bus or whatnot to the next section so her sections were always at optimal conditions. So this illusion that she walked through hell to find herself is just that–an illusion. And I already know her shoe story is a fabrication–and so does everyone else on the PCT. So why should I believe any of it. The whole summer–three months–half the trail? That means resting as much as you want and taking bits and pieces at her leisure. There is no triumph here–she was on vacation with walkabouts in-between.

    There have been other writers who actually can claim the hardship and trial that Strayed claims. But Oprah and her “girl power” didn’t discover those writers so Reese wasn’t interested. This movie will be a hit among the non thru hikers who have no idea what the PCT is even like. The real thru hiker community detests Strayed as she has not even remotely tested herself on a continuous journey that she claims.

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    • Sam September 20, 2014 at 12:27 AM #

      I can tell you feel passionately. Thank you for your insightful comment.

      Like

      • chip hurst September 20, 2014 at 7:55 AM #

        No problem Sam. It’s not a matter of how I feel though. The thru hike community in 2012 as we were actually completing the trail were enraged by Strayed. And some of us are writers who waited until we actually completed the trail before we put pen to paper. And it isn’t just an opinion. We all want to know exactly where she lost her shoe, and then tossed the other one. We already know the area she is talking about and there is no slope there you can’t get down to retrieve a shoe. A terrain map could clear the whole matter up or people in the area could go on the trail itself–her story doesn’t hold water. And there is a LOT of that in her book. It is really bothering not only us writer types but thru hikers that this woman is getting not only bloody rich but a great deal of heroic attention when a lot of us are beginning to question if she really did even the 1,100 miles she claimed.

        Take care

        C

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      • Sam September 20, 2014 at 9:22 AM #

        I fear this may be another instance of memoirs being more exaggerated than they should be. Recall the controversy with James Fry’s ‘A Million Little Pieces.’ That’s the problem with something labeled a memoir instead of an autobiography. Truth, unfortunately, becomes subjective.

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  4. Lyla Michaels January 17, 2015 at 1:20 AM #

    Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had.

    Like

    • Califohioan February 19, 2015 at 12:11 PM #

      I spent two months of my life reviewing Strayed’s awful book– page by awful page. She is a terrible writer–

      “I walked and walked and walked.”

      “It rained and rained and rained.”

      “I cried and I cried and I cried.”

      “We kissed and kissed and kissed.”

      It is beyond comprehension why people think this book is good. Additionally, it is clear to any hiker that she fabricated the vast majority of her “memoir.” I encourage you to read the review and, more importantly, *all of the comments* on the review. Please start at the beginning and go from there. As time went on, more and more actual PCT hikers joined in on the conversation and while I spent most of my review making fun of her awful writing and pointing out the obvious lies, these fine people add so much more to the argument that Strayed made the whole thing up.

      You can find it here:

      http://cherylstrayedisaliar.blogspot.com/

      Again, if you’re to read it, please start at the beginning.

      Cheers!

      Like

      • Sam February 19, 2015 at 12:17 PM #

        You are not the first to comment on this post about Strayed and the fabrication many have found in her novel. I can honestly say that while reading the novel I wasn’t overly impressed with the writing style but didn’t find the repetition you have pointed out here.

        It’s been very eye opening to see how hikers of the PCT have taken up against Strayed but it’s still seen great success commercially. Thanks for adding your opinion to this discussion.

        Like

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