If you’re wondering how a review of a book on backpacking and soul-searching fits within the purview of The Hippie Triathlete, I give you the four main themes of Cheryl Strayed’s popular memoir, Wild: Adventure. Discomfort. Sweat. Goals.
I picked up this book on a whim, and while I wouldn’t highly recommend it, I’m not sorry I read it. It wasn’t a bad way to spend those precious hours between work, play, and training. Within the span of a chapter, however, I realized that Strayed’s tale of self-realization had probably attracted me because of its familiarity. Do we choose artistic experiences based on how far they take us from ourselves, or how comfortable they are? Maybe the best ones offer a meeting of both.
Wild just came a little too close. No, I haven’t hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone, but the myriad ways Strayed’s life paralleled my own were, for some reason, irritating. I don’t have a terminally ill mother or an absentee father, but other aspects of her life could’ve been my own: a pervasive wanderlust, an aesthetic appreciation of dirt and grub, and an overly trusting disposition, to name a few. She too desired both solitude and love (“I was ravenous for love,” she writes in one of the book’s better passages), spent years living of restaurant tips, and happened to be an English major. Ack, stop!
Aside from all the smacks of myself that kept surfacing (not her fault, of course), Strayed’s storytelling too often teases a climax or tragedy that she never reaches, as if leading the reader down some pointless offshoot. My heart rate would rise, only to be let down by the story’s ordinariness: The men in the truck are well-meaning. The hunters in the forest just run-of-the-mill jerks. It’s not that I wished her ill, it was that I felt misled by empty foreshadowing.
What I liked least about this book was its mundanity. The book seemed like a collection of diary entries from what could be 10,000 women in their mid 20’s, searching for meaning and independence. It’s Eat, Pray, Love without the cultural insight and humor, Blood, Bones, and Butter without the grit. It’s not that I don’t respect Strayed as a writer, it’s just that I fear that if I were to write a memoir, it would read like this.
Had I never stood on a mountain peak naked, backpacked solo in the Rocky Mountains, free-camped and solo cycle toured, maybe then I would’ve found Stayed’s story more compelling. As for all the young women who haven’t done these things—and for whom Strayed might be an inspiration toward adventure—to them she is, and should be, a hero. But then again, maybe I just haven’t lost hard enough to get it.
I did finish the book, though. The story has a linear momentum that only journey narratives can, and Strayed weaves memory and detail into a sense of the present with grace. The book also stirred my desire for immersion in the natural world, and for an escape from constant connectedness. It made me think about how we “measure ourselves,” as John Krakauer wrote in Into the Wild (in a way this book’s much more eloquent predecessor). It made me think about quitting, and about discomfort—things worth thinking about, whether applied to triathlon, or career, or marriage, or anything worth giving a damn about.