Self-Discovery in the Wild: An Interview with Cheryl Strayed

Photo by Joni Kabana.

The whole thing would have never even happened, in quite this way, if it hadn’t been for that snowstorm. Visiting South Dakota while trying to make sense of life—in the midst of her mother’s premature passing, from cancer, and her own marriage’s premature passing, from causes more nebulous—Cheryl Strayed went to the store to buy herself a shovel. Standing in line to pay for the shovel is when she “spotted a guidebook about something called the Pacific Crest Trail.” A couple days later, back home in Minnesota and out of the storm, she “remembered the guidebook I’d plucked from a shelf” at the store, whereupon “[t]he thought of the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face. I believed I’d only been killing time when I’d picked up the book while standing in line, but now it seemed like something more—a sign. Not only of what I could do, but of what I had to do.”

The book she’d picked up was something called The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California, in which the authors ruefully wonder, “How can a book describe the psychological factors a person must prepare for…the despair, the alienation, the anxiety and especially the pain, both physical and mental, which slices to the very heart of the hiker’s volition, which are the real things that must be planned for?” If their question is asked in earnest, then the answer can be found in the form of the memoir Strayed has just published, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, about the hike she took soon after her epiphany. This was 1995; in the 17 years since, she’s published a novel, Torch (2006), as well as numerous stories and essays (two of which have been anthologized in the annual Best American Essays omnibus; the 2000 and 2003 editions), and for two years has been regularly penning The Rumpus’s popular advice column, “Dear Sugar.” She recently answered some questions by e-mail about Wild.

One of the things I really liked about Wild, before having read a word, is that it’s not an example of what I’ve come to think of as “the Ponzi memoir”–that is, it’s not a memoir whose material was subsidized by the promise of its own future earnings. Not that there aren’t some very good books written this way: Eat, Pray, Love; Joe McGinniss’s Heroes; Michael Paterniti’s Driving Mr. Albert (maybe the single worst title ever given to a great book). But I think you’ll agree there’s a certain authenticity to a memoir whose material has had time to mature and settle, and whose origins are not necessarily the result of a book contract. Deb Unferth’s recent Revolution is the same way. So that even though you knew you’d be writing about it someday, it’s not this sort of instantly written memoir-on-demand. Did you intentionally put all those years–nearly two decades–between the living and the writing?

I didn’t ever think I’d write much about my PCT hike, actually. In 2008 I had an idea to try to publish a collection of my personal essays and I intended to round out the collection with an essay about my hike, since the other essays in the book (which never became a book) told the stories of other parts of my twenties. I started writing the essay and it went on and on until I finally realized I had a bigger story to tell. As you point out, there are great memoirs written by people who have an experience while knowing they will soon turn that experience into a book, but I’m glad I wasn’t thinking in those terms on my PCT hike. I imagine it would have altered the experience in negative ways. I’m also grateful for the years that have passed between my hike and the time I wrote the book. I always say memoir is not about what happened, but rather what meaning the memoirist takes from what happened. It took me years to gain the perspective I brought into writing Wild.

At one point pretty early on in Wild, you characterize the hike, without qualification, as impulsive. But it wasn’t entirely impulsive, was it? I mean, when you think of the research and preparation and financing, are you willing to see it as something that’s also kind of premeditated, in the best kind of ways–as something that was arrived at capriciously but carried out responsibly?

I don’t think the hike itself was impulsive, but rather my decision to hike it was. I had this feeling I had to do it, after having done nothing more than read the back cover of a PCT guidebook. It was that impulse that led me to do all the preparation I needed to do to get myself ready for the trip, which required a lot of planning. I like your way of putting it—arrived at capriciously, but carried out responsibly, though of course I had a lot to learn and I only realized that once I got out there. As I detail in Wild, I worked extra shifts at my waitressing job to save money, I researched and purchased the gear and supplies I’d need, planned out my trip and packed my resupply boxes, and so much else. In some ways it was all that planning that distracted me from the fact that I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. In many ways, I couldn’t have. The trail teaches you what you are doing. My experience hiking the PCT reminds me of what it was like to have my first baby. I bought all this baby gear and outfitted my house and car with it, but until my son arrived, I hadn’t a clue.

Not much mention is made, in Wild, of other literature on hiking America’s great trails, the PCT or any other–not of the narrative literature or the instructional literature (although The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I, of course, plays a significant role in the story). Is this a case of the iceberg being hidden beneath the surface, or were you really as innocent of the existing literature as your text would want us to believe?

I hadn’t read anything about the great trails or about long-distance backpacking other than my one guidebook—The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I: California. I knew a bit about John Muir, but I hadn’t read anything he’d written. I heard of the Appalachian Trail only after I decided to hike the PCT and I didn’t read any books about it or talk to anyone who’d hiked on it. The iceberg, in this case, really wasn’t hidden beneath the surface! There was no iceberg. I just read my PCT guidebook over and over again. It seems dunderheaded now, but I think a combination of things were at play. One is that I was so focused on the logistical and practical aspects of my trip—getting all the things I needed for the journey—that I didn’t have time to spend hours and days researching. And it would have taken that. There weren’t many books about hiking the PCT available at the time and the handful that had been published were difficult to locate and some were out of print. I remember going to the public library in Minneapolis and making some effort in that direction, but I returned home empty handed. It was early 1995. Like most people, I wasn’t yet on the Internet. I didn’t even understand what the Internet was then. Information didn’t come as readily as it does now. It wasn’t three clicks away. I would say that’s the biggest difference between hiking the trail now and hiking it when I did. There is so much more information available now about hiking the PCT and other long trails than there was before. I’m not saying I couldn’t have done a better job preparing myself for the experience, but it was more complicated than it might seem.

You also mention that you kept a journal during the hike, and yet this journal rarely gets mentioned–I don’t think it’s ever quoted from, and you tell about writing in it only once or twice, I believe. And yet, the detail in this book is so elaborate, it’s obviously not pure memory you’re working from. To what extent did you in fact write in the journal; and to what extent did you rely on it in crafting this narrative?

I avoided mentioning it often because it was too boring to repeat: “I wrote in my journal again.” I do say at one point that I recorded pretty much everything I did that summer in my journal, so I thought that was enough. I don’t quote from it because the POV of the book isn’t explicitly retrospective. The narrator doesn’t appear to have that reflective distance from the story where she’d say, “In my journal that night I wrote…” But the fact is, I quote from my journal loosely throughout the whole book. If I handed you my PCT journal to read it would be a different experience than reading Wild, of course, but you’d recognize everything—conversations I recorded hours and sometimes minutes after having them, notes on the landscape, what it felt like in a particular moment. I relied on my journal a lot in writing Wild, but memory played a big part too.

Since we’re already talking about both your preparation for the hike and what you’ve chosen to include in the book, I guess I should also go ahead and ask about how you trained physically for the hike. You’d been working full-time as a waitress, so you were obviously accustomed to being on your feet for long stretches of time, but was there anything else you did to prepare physically?

No. I didn’t do anything to prepare myself physically. I was 26 and in generally good shape. I’d been a runner intermittently since I was a teenager, but I wasn’t running or exercising regularly in the months before I began my hike. I was waitressing and drinking a lot of gin at two in the morning. I got in shape on the trail.

As a purely physical endeavor, the hike is more arduous than I think most non-initiates, such as myself, presume. This is not a series of day-hike nature-walks. In fact, I often felt, when reading Wild, similar to how I feel when I read exploration narratives, because of all the hardships endured and limits transcended. Were you thinking of exploration narrative, too, as you wrote; do you even typically read books about exploration?

Before I hiked the PCT, I had the same idea that you have—that maybe my trip would be like taking a bunch of day hikes done back-to-back. But long-distance hiking isn’t like that. It’s more like trying to run a marathon every day for weeks on end while carrying a heavy pack, cooking your own food, finding water, and ascending and descending a series of mountains—some through which you have to bushwhack.

I haven’t read many books about exploration or hiking, but I didn’t need to in order to convey what it was like to hike the PCT. I needed only to write what happened to me on the trail. When I finished the first draft of Wild it occurred to me that I should read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods—somehow, I’d missed it when it was a bestseller. I laughed so hard while reading that book because I knew he knew how hard it was to hike in the wilderness while carrying a backpack for days on end. He had experiences that I relate to deeply, even though we took our hikes for different reasons and had different experiences on the trails we hiked. The essential experience was the same. And the experience is that it’s a fucking crucible—physically, mentally, and emotionally. I get the same feedback from others who have read Wild and hiked long stretches of either the PCT or the Appalachian Trail. They all say, Oh yes. I know exactly what you mean.

One of the more impressive things about the book is its structure, because of how you were able to parcel out backstory at appropriate places without having to disrupt the narrative, and without waiting too long to do so, and without, of course, loading it all into the front of the narrative, where it may have blocked many readers’ access to the rest of the book. What kind of an outline did you work with in writing Wild?

I didn’t have an outline. I just had an idea that I trusted. Of course there was much revision and swapping things around as I wrote, but I tend to avoid outlines and instead work more intuitively. After I’d written the first 80 pages or so I realized that I had to adopt some methods to keep the story moving forward, lest I get bogged down in the back story. The trail provided the natural forward motion and my rule was that each chapter had to begin with me on the trail. It helped to have the trail as my touchstone. The advantage of writing a memoir about a journey is that it offers a chronological trajectory against which everything else can happen. By beginning each chapter on the trail, the story moved forward in both time and geography no matter how far I’d swirled into back story in the chapter before. In some chapters I stayed on the trail for the whole chapter, but in most I began on the trail and then moved back in time.

The back story is not told in chronological order, unlike the front story (aka: my hike). My decisions about what to tell about my past and when I should tell it developed organically. I felt sure that the story of my mother’s illness and death had to come very early in the book. Her death was the end of my life as I knew it and I was trying to find my way back to life by hiking the PCT, so I knew readers had to know that before I set foot on the trail. The rest of the back story spun out of me as I made my way along the story of my hike. Sometimes the back story was born out of what I was actually thinking about during that time. Like the scene where I’m walking through those clear cuts in northern California and I start to think about my family and I have that memory about the last time I saw my brother and we saw that our kitchen table had been carved into? I was really remembering that then, on that night. Other times, I simply put the back story scenes in the narrative where it felt necessary and right.

Yeah, and there are a lot of moments, of the kind you describe, when something appears that’s so serendipitous, it’s almost as if it were placed along the trail intentionally, divinely, as a sort of memento. And although I never for a second doubted your honesty, there are certain things that in fiction would have tested my credulity. Like you being offered James Michener’s The Novel at that family’s home, and how that allows a perfect segue for writing about your youthful arrogance toward your mother’s middle-brow tastes (as you essentially define them; she liked Michener), as well as your ambitions toward writing fiction (Michener’s book is about the entire circumstances of a particular novel). Elsewhere (and without giving too much away here), there’s the condom that sits like Chekov’s gun on the table waiting to go off, and the mystery of the missing twenty-dollar bill at the bottom of the resupply box (to give just two examples). You had the skill to properly exploit these serendipities, but you also had the luck (at least as a writer) that the opportunities were there to exploit. So if all this is leading up to a question (and it is, I promise), then I guess it’s: What, if any, notions about fiction-vs.-nonfiction did the writing of this book disabuse you of that all the personal essays you’d written had not?

Before I answer your question I want to say that that I don’t quite think of it as luck. I can see how it reads that way, but I really believe that those opportunities are always there in our lives and one’s work as a writer is to remember the crazy synchronicities and serendipities and coincidences and figure out how to exploit them on the page. The most important quality to have as a writer is the ability to pay attention. That’s true no matter what sort of writing you do. It’s the particular that matters in any genre—the telling detail, the gesture, the seemingly meaningless object that becomes emblematic of something of great significance—but I’d say in memoir it matters especially. In memoir what really happened is your material, so you have to know how to make use of it. Life is full of crazy magic if we’re willing to notice it. I think when a writer does that and writes about it there’s a sense that actual life has been heightened in ways that we both associate with and would not tolerate in fiction. I’ve often observed that a good half of the nonfiction I write could not be pulled off in fiction—or at least fiction written by me. It would simply be too hard to persuade the reader I was telling a credible story.

So, on to your question. Writing Wild was different from writing my personal essays, but not in the way your question suggests. It didn’t have much to do with genre, since they are both nonfiction forms. With Wild I had to keep the ball in the air a lot longer, to build a narrative over hundreds of pages rather than twenty-five. My first book was a novel called Torch and that experience was different than writing Wild because of course it was fiction and the parameters were different. I was building characters in Torch, not excavating a life.

You’ve been writing, for some time now, a popular advice column for The Rumpus called “Dear Sugar.” Were you doing the column at the time of this book’s primary composition? The column isn’t merely prescriptive, of course—it’s also descriptive and narrative and confessional in nature—and so is this book, to put it mildly. How did the column inform the book, and/or vice versa?

I began writing the “Dear Sugar” column in March 2010, the month after I’d finished the first polished draft of Wild. I’d sent the book to my editor at Knopf and was waiting for her notes when Steve Almond asked me to take over the Sugar column—he’d been writing it before me. I thought it would be this little thing I did on the side while I finished up Wild, but it became its own gigantic thing, so I found myself in this somewhat ridiculous situation where I was essentially writing what turned out to be two books at once. I was revising Wild while writing these long and intense columns, which will be collected in a book that will be published in July—it’s called Tiny Beautiful Things. I think they informed each other, but only indirectly. In both, I write from a personal place and I try to go all the way there, in terms of saying what I think must be said.

Have you been back to the PCT in any context or for any reason since the events described in Wild?

I have! I love the PCT. It’s only about an hour’s drive from my house in Portland. I’ve only gone on day hikes on the PCT since my long trek. When I’m on it I always feel nostalgic. It still feels to me a little bit like home.

Near the end of your hike, it’s suggested to you (by a non-hiker of the PCT) that you put on your résumé your hiking of the trail, because it shows potential employers that you have “character.” I don’t think many would dispute the wisdom of that; did you in fact put the experience on your résumé?

Your question makes me smile. I never did put it on my resume, but it came up once in a job interview and I’m quite sure it played a role in my being hired. I’d applied to be a youth advocate, working with teen girls on pregnancy prevention. Once I mentioned my PCT trek to the women who were interviewing me, it was all they wanted to talk about.

Lary Wallace is a contributing editor for The Faster Times. He can be reached at emersonian@ymail.com. ...read more

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