In the summer of 1993, twenty-six year old Cheryl Strayed walked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Southern California to the Oregon/Washington border. Strayed’s life unmoored after her mother’s untimely death from cancer four years earlier, and she dabbled in serial adultery (leading to a sad divorce), heroin use, and one dead-end job after another. On a whim she purchases a guide to the PCT and fixates on walking the trail as a means to reclaim her life.
Strayed’s descriptions of the journey are riveting – the loneliness, fear and sheer insanity of a single woman walking the trail alone, the overwhelming physical demands of slogging day after day with her pack (which she names Monster), and the challenges of forging across high desert and snow and ice while avoiding rattlesnakes and bears. As she ticks off the miles, her graphic memories of her mother’s fatal illness and her destruction of her marriage are as unforgiving as the High Sierra landscape. The unremitting hardships of the trail are relieved by occasional encounters with other PCT hikers who share tips, cold beer and war stories (one helping her shed unneeded weight from Monster), prearranged shipments of food and other supplies that arrive at various locations along the way just as she is flat broke and out of rations, and the occasional stopover where being able to shower in a camp facility is Nirvana. Towards the end Strayed remarks, “it had gotten easier over the months but that is not to say it was ever easy.”
The book is both a literal and metaphorical journey for Strayed. As one of my friends remarked, this is no Eat, Pray, Drivel – this is a story about a woman who has reached rock bottom and literally and figuratively climbs her way back. Best enjoyed from a deck chair next to the pool – let’s not get crazy here.