Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence


Far from my studio, in the world of Wild.


I really loved reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.  I’m not alone in that, of course.  The book has had the trajectory of a rocket and has left earth’s constricting atmosphere, bound for the heavens, and history.  Cheryl Strayed has built the most compelling narrative out of a walk on the Pacific Coast Trail.  Walk, ha.  It’s 1100 miles of difficult terrain, from desert to snowfield to deep, dark forest.  Also the forest of the soul.  And that’s where the irresistible drive of this book takes place, the soul.  Trail stories are nearly universally boring—a privileged person wears out some shoes, or a funny person mocks the enterprise, or an achiever overvalues his experience and documents every hard-won sandwich.  Whatever, in the end they are victors, and their triumph has a moral.

Cheryl Strayed photographed by her husband, Brian Lindstrom

What Strayed adds to the mix is a strong, anti-suburban anti-ethos.  She’s been self-destructive, but doesn’t really mind that about herself, in fact, motherless, steps in these many years later and loves her younger self unconditionally.   And as reader, you love her, too, really, really care about this kid and the person she becomes, love her from the start, and love her courageous incompetence, her confident ambivalence even as she walks through the valley of the shadow of death—“Who’s braver than me!” she keeps saying.

And you worry about her feet, and your worry about her life, and you wish people would come through for her even though she doesn’t need them, and in that and all other ways you admire her courage, part of which is the courage of the narrative itself.

What I love most about Wild is that the Cheryl writing doesn’t judge the Cheryl hiking, and doesn’t feel superior to her, and most of all—here’s the power of the book, I think—loves her unconditionally, and in that way offers her, well, a mom as she puts herself in the driver’s seat of her own life.  If I may quote her.  And then as we follow the trail, the voice of the narration slips back effortlessly and becomes the hiker’s, and the hiker’s memory as she hikes becomes again the narration.

There’s also the frank sexuality, the attractions, the happy hook-ups, the unhappy, the good decisions and bad, the dammed-up tears that will flow when the time finally comes.  There’s the body, too, the real body, the pack-damaged skin, the tattoo of a horse (and the story that goes with it), the hole to shit in, the trail-friendly menstrual sponge, the unfriendly hunger, the terrible thirst: it’s wonderful, it’s human, the body natural, and almost no one ever mentions any of it.

I love it because it’s all so anti-suburban: the younger Cheryl did these things and thought these things and wanted these things and made horrendous mistakes but had fun, too, sex, smack, and rock and roll, and that’s how it is, so.

And literarily speaking there’s a parallel, the refusal of the epic model, in which the hero returns home, like Odysseus, or Dorothy.  Because our hero can’ go home: her home is gone.  And in the end she can’t quite say what the moral is, and doesn’t try.  A hike’s just a hike, let’s not kid ourselves. The growth has happened since, and it was in progress before.  You can’t just put down the heavy pack and walk away, and putting on a heavy pack doesn’t mean you weren’t wearing one the moment before.

A great book, which you also can’t put down (read that as you wish, all true), and an example of well-deserved success, things going right in book world.

  1. Liz. writes:

    I’m late to the party, but it’s the Pacific CREST Trail.

    I’ve hiked the entire trail, and I couldn’t relate to the author whatsoever and her hike, while no doubt authentic (as in, she was out there and put the miles in), is in no way representative of how my hike was (and I’m confident that other hikers would say the same).

    She used the trail like a limp prop in her self-involved memoir, and I was hoping that for all the hype, she’d actually try to portray what life on the trail is really like. Sure, snippets here and there, but this book is NOT about hiking the PCT. Bait and switch, at least from a hiker viewpoint. It sounds pretty impressive to backpack for months on end, and Oprah sure loves the idea of hiking the trail that she’d never even heard of before now, but the reality is much different than how the media hype has spelled it out to be. Strayed’s self-defeating, ill-prepared hike and her repetitive flashbacks into her sordid and confused past were just plain boring for me.

    I feel like the people who have defended the book as a great memoir (by their affinity for the story or the author, I don’t care) are being sold on something that is less dynamic and less genuine than the real thing, and I feel let down by the entire thing.

    • Bill writes:

      Right, Crest. I’m in Maine and screw these things up. The Apple Munchkin Trail has its terminus here. As for WILD, I still think it’s great. And it’s not a book about hiking, any more than Dave’s RETURN OF THE OSPREY is a book about birds. Each to her own. I kinda like a sordid past. I’m not defending the book in this piece–I just liked the book. I’m a tough reader, too. You didn’t like the book, that’s okay. I still respect you!

  2. Richard Gilbert writes:

    I’ve just written a post about the reception to Wild, specifically about those like one commentator here who hate Cheryl Strayed’s persona—and really about the general nonfiction issue, which doesn’t affect fiction much, of judging a book by its author:


  3. Margaret Benbow writes:

    You wrote a magnificent full-throated full-embrace review, Bill, and I like it somewhat better than Strayed’s book. (We’ve already had some words about this on Facebook comments.) Why do I feel that I understand her, and what she’s about, better than you? Because I’m a woman. I intensely enjoy her writing. No question that she has the chops. The problem comes with your faith in her “honesty”. I see most of her unbuttoned, hairy, sweaty sexual recollections as calculating. They get the reader’s attention, right? She glories in her own screw-ups, rubs her (and our) face in them time and again. She SETS UP screw-ups on the trail. Who in her right mind would prepare so inadequately for such a demanding physical crucible as the Pacific Trail? Why has she chosen brand new unbroken-in too-small boots? She endlessly whines about the poor rags of her feet–whose tattered condition was absolutely inevitable, given her contempt for the most basic preparation. She has mailed packages to herself with food and money at halting-places on the trial. They are often missed, inadequate.

    Strayed has a kink in herself which demands constant life crises…and for readers to see them, deplore them, be excited by them, root for her to overcome them. She’s extremely good at being an exhibitionistic screw-up performance artist. In general, I like and admire her book. But I don’t like that calculating glimmer in the back of her eye.

    • Bill writes:

      You are a cynic. And an armchair psychiatrist. But fair enough. You give good compliment. I think all those years ago she did indeed make the errors in question–shoes, pack, etc–and now these years later she can look at those mistakes with such clarity that we readers can have opinions about the whys and wherefores. She’s just telling us about what really happened. You think all those years ago she thought, I’ll buy some fucked-up shoes and wreck my feet so I can write about it more than a decade hence? Um, right. And Obama’s parents cleverly placed birth notices in Hawaiian newspapers knowing he’d run for president one day! As for artifice, that’s what writing’s all about. As for knowing more than I about women because you’re a women, that’s pretty darned old-fashioned thinking. Maybe, in fact, you’re vision is clouded by your own flaws, which you assign to other women, other writers. Or am I being an armchair psychologist?

      • Margaret Benbow writes:

        Bill, anyone worth his salt is an armchair psychiatrist. God help us if the day ever comes that we’re so old and lacking in curiosity that we’re no longer interested in seeing through someone–because that is the same as refusing to SEE him. I want to SEE Strayed. Nor do I think it odd that as a woman I might understand her better, her shifts and devices, all the way through, than you do. Do you think you might understand another man better than I do?

        I’m with Paul Valery about memoirs: “You must go into yourself armed to the teeth.” Chris Norment made a good point when he noted Strayed’s “lack of genuine introspection.” I’m not saying she needed to go after herself with a pickax, but she needed to do more digging. It’s not enough for her to keep waving a racy list of bad behavior. God, she’s all but making a cottage industry out of her bad behavior.

        For some people, there are no accidents. I’ll say it again: Strayed is crisis-oriented, needs and seeks that adrenalin kick in the blood of risky or disturbing incident. Bad boots, knife in the dark, random guy who ends up boring her, on and on. Did she specifically set up these incidents so she could write about them later? No. But she did set them up.

        By contrast we have Lopez, thank God. He goes into himself, to quote Valery again, armed to the teeth. Some call him sententious? His honesty is relentless, fearless, thrilling. He is a genuinely great writer. Strayed is not in the same category.

    • Richard Gilbert writes:


      There is craft—or calculation, as you put it—in where she reveals her backstory. But I simply cannot see her character both as flawed and as calculating regarding what she did in her life and on the trail as you do. She was deranged after the death of her mother, no doubt; even for grief it was excessive, and she herself doesn’t quite understand it, how she wrecked her marriage, etc., and she DID prepare for the trail in some logical ways, but I don’t think she did things for material—expect, perhaps, in the sense that any ambitious young artist does anything with a dual motive to a degree. You can see this in her reading and writing on the trail. She probably did vaguely hope to write about it, maybe not—what she wrote on the trail other than her journal was the start of her novel.

      I think what’s going on is you don’t like her, well, her persona. I understand that, because I had the same reaction to Nabokov in Speak, Memory; he was such a cold fish, to me. But as with my excessive reaction to him, that’s on you, not her. You are subjectively “right” about Cheryl for yourself, but I can tell you that you’re wrong objectively about her self portrayal. She just doesn’t come off as you depict her to someone who doesn’t try to see through her or something.

  4. Chris Norment writes:

    Bill – thanks for your thoughtful review of “Wild,” which made me consider Strayed’s writing, but also the nature of the “trail” narrative – I’ve written one myself, and my other two books also have many “trail” elements in them. While I agree with some of your sentiments, particularly in regards to her courage and non-judgmental take on her youthful self, I was less than completley won over by the book. First, what I liked: her pluck and self-confidence (even though it certainly waivered a lot); her physical and emotional courage, in the face of her history and lack of preparation for her walk; and as you write, her non-judgmental attitude toward her youthful self. Strayed was (and I imagine is), no doubt, one tough woman, and like you, I rooted for her the whole way from Tehachapi Pass to the Columbia River.

    What I didn’t like about the book: what I took to be Strayed’s lack of genuine introspection, her less than compelling description of the country through which she hiked, and some of the more graphic sections concerning her sexuality. First, the lack of introspection. While Strayed spends a lot of time thinking about her past, and does struggle at times with trying to understand why she behaved as she did, I do not feel that she directly confronted the possible reasons for her admittedly self-destructive behavior. Too much analysis, bad; some, good…. Why? Because “even though she doesn’t need them (other people)”, other people may need her , and are/were affected by her behavior – such as her former husband, Paul. And if Strayed does not work to understand herself, then she could easily repeat her past mistakes, and plow though the wreckage of other people’s lives, as well as her own. It’s as Bernhard Schlink writes: “The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly on top of the other that we always some up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive.” So – I would have liked more depth, and so to understand more about Strayed’s “tectonic” layers – how and why they came into being, how they influenced her present, and how they might affect her future.

    Second, the country through which Strayed hiked never came fully alive for me; the descriptions of the environment often seemed generic. Over the years I have explored a good bit of the country between Tehachapi Pass and the Columbia River Gorge, and just did not recognize much of it as I followed her hike. I know that no one book can be all things, and that the country itself was not meant to be the main focus of her narrative, but still – place is important, and to me the land in “Wild” was never fully formed.

    Third – the “frank sexuality.” Barry Lopez (who as a writer sometimes seems too emotionally reserved) distinguishes between the “personal” and the “private”. He feels that for writing to be compelling, it must be personal, but that it should not deal much with the private – those things that the reader really does not want to know about. For me, “Wild” too often veered into the realm of the private. I just did not want to know about Strayed’s masturbatory habits, or her activities in and around Ashland with Jonathan; neither of these added to the narrative. Besides, sex is very difficult to write about well (witness the “Bad Sex Writing Awards”); it is best approached obliquely, which Staryed does not do. In the same way, I am not a big fan of the confessional poetry of writers such as Sharon Olds; too much information for me. I am more comfortable with Lopez’s general approach – and he, by the way, has written in a very compelling way about the abuse her suffered as a child.

    A final thought about “trail” narratives, which you say are often boring. But they aren’t always boring – just mostly so when they have no emotional depth, no honest examination of the larger world and its context – which extends from the self, out into the surrounding landscape. You also write that “a hike’s just a hike.” Hmm. If a “hike’s just a hike,” then why “Wild”? The penultimate paragraph of the book alone tells me that Strayed did not view her walk as “just a hike.” I believe that she was saved by her walk, although not redeemed by it (there is a difference between the two, and I am not talking religion here), and I would like to know more about if and why this was true. I know that the natural world has saved me, but probably not made me that much of a better person, and I would have liked to understand more about how Strayed’s relationship to the world in which the PCT is embedded affected her.

    My two cents (or 0.016 Euros). I don’t want to be too much of a curmudgeon here, as I did like much about “Wild,” even if I cannot be as laudatory about the book as most people seem to be – and I plan or rereading it, to see if I need to change my opinion. But then again, curmudgeon that I am, I really, really did not like “Eat, Pray, Love.”

    • Bill writes:

      Every story should start with sex. That’s all there is to it. Why not say what happened, as Robert Lowell put it. I think what we’ve got here is the age-old argument between the Apollonian and the Dionysian mind, between intellect and emotion (and between the intellectual and the psychological), between information and expression, between reticence and nerve, between the literal and the metaphorical, between the puritans and the rest of us. And let’s not pretend: between traditionally male and traditionally female. But, as the Buddhists say, all paths lead to enlightenment. Or trails in this case. Really, all you’re saying is that you wish Ms. Strayed had written a different book, more like yours or those you already admire. But this is what she wrote, different from all the trail material I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot, living and teaching so close to the Appalachian Trail), and I found myself admiring the great energy of WILD, the hurtling momentum, a story that didn’t have to do with hiking so much as with conquering demons. She knows the trail is a symbol. Do we have to describe every stop sign to know what the octagon means? I don’t get how you tell genuine introspection from other kinds of introspection. She covered the hurt of her ex-husband thoroughly. She outlines thoroughly as well the causes of her anomie, the family stories that bedevil her. She exorcises them in front of us; Jesus, what do you want? Most important, she embraces the contradictions inside all of us. That’s the stuff she sets off in opposition, that’s the dialectic. What’s expected of a good girl, and what in fact she did, and how the synthesis broiled inside her. As for Barry Lopez: dry at best and often sententious, even pompous, though one learns even from the most abstracted professors puffing even the most prosaic pipes. Thank goodness we don’t have to picture him having sex! I think he elevates his own hangups and flaws and pretends they are an aesthetic, personal vs. private, another abstraction. But what he’s doing has nothing to do with what WILD is doing. Like a tennis player isn’t doing what a football player is doing. Imagine the announcer shouting–“Federer needs to get in there and tackle that guy!” The one thing I’d agree with you about, Chris, and respectfully, as you are a fine writer, is that Ms. Strayed doesn’t linger over the landscape, isn’t big on the description, doesn’t do the PCT justice as a physical reality. I would have liked more description of it all, too–but then again, that’s what I do, and that’s already been done thoroughly, and will be done again. Let’s let the woman play tennis and let’s admit she’s taken it in straight sets!

      • Chris Norment writes:

        Hi, Bill – thanks for your thoughtful response to my post. At first, I winced when I read the following: “Really, all you’re saying is that you wish Ms. Strayed had written a different book, more like yours or those you already admire.” But then I figured – isn’t that what most reviewers do, most of the time? It’s sometimes difficult to step far enough back from another author’s work to view it quasi-objectively, without one’s own prejudices and preferences interfering too much, whether you are analyzing a Nicholas Sparks novel, or a book by T. C. Boyle.. Anyway, I don’t have a lot of time to respond to your comments, because I am on my way west and need to get back on the road. (I-80, near Chicago. Ugh.) So, in the interest of compromise, and as inspired by the U.S. House of Representatives’ thirty-first (or is it thirty-third?) vote on the Health Care Act, I’ll say that overall, Strayed has written an interesting and at times compelling story. I did enjoy many parts of her book, and some aspects of the story that she told. There’s much to admire in “Wild,” but I’ll not (yet?) yield on my point about introspection. To me, Strayed’s introspection is mostly of the “Gee, I was wandering around in the dark, holding a sharp knife, when I fell and cut myself. Damn, it hurt, and there was lots of blood!” variety. She’s good at describing the dark, and what it felt like to fall and cut herself, but not so good at explaining exactly what led her to be stumbling around in an unlit house at 2:00 am, while holding a sharp knife pointed at her own breast (as attarctive as it well might be, particularly when fetchingly clad in a lacey black bra).

        And okay, Lopez can be a bit “sententious” at times (In the name of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I had to look that word up), although “Arctic Dreams” remains one of my favorite books on the natural world.

        I’d love to continue our dialog, especially if we were sitting down face-to-face and I had a nice Dogfishhead IPA in front of me, but as I said, it’s time to get back on the cement-and-asphalt trail, and head toward and beyond the Hundredth Meridian. For the moment, then, and as inspired by your sports metaphor, I would like to lay down my racket, shake hands, step back from the wicket, and punt. Cheers, Chris.

        • Bill writes:

          Chris, you’re a good man and a wonderful writer and I look forward to that drink one day. But I don’t buy your argument about introspection and WILD, though that bit about the knife and lacy bra that you use in place of evidence is an entertaining piece of sexism and, I’m realizing, plain old pudeur. I couldn’t stay awake for Arctic Dreams, I’m afraid, but so many people I admire have admired it so much that I’ll have to try it again one day.

          • Chris Norment writes:

            Hi, again, Bill – Yes, it would be fun to someday sit down together and talk over a couple of IPAs. By the way, I did not intend to make a sexist comment when I mentioned the black bra – I was just channeling Strayed’s obsession with her underwear while she was in Ashland. But then again, I did not mean to misspell “attractive,” either.

            Cheers, Chris

            And thanks for the Bill and Dave blog – there’s lots of interest. I’ll have to follow it.

            • Linda Gartz writes:

              Your book, Writing Life Stories, was the first I bought back in 2002 when I took a deep breath and committed to reading the thousands of pages of diaries and letters my parents and grandparents saved (along with photos, artifacts, notes — 25 bankers’ boxes worth) and attempting to write a memoir or family history.

              I was already a television writer, so I figured I could get this done in a couple years. Boy! Was I wrong! Many classes and tens of thousands of words later, I have yet to nail how to approach this family saga.

              Strayed’s Wild gave me an idea of a structure I might attempt to emulate, my PCT being our lives on Chicago’s West Side in a sprawling rooming house and how my parents couldn’t give up the building business, even after the hood turned into a riot-riven ghetto, often called “the national poster child for urban decay.”

              Only my parents carried on. Why they did so is what I’m searching for. So I guess it’s more about them than me. Is that a problem?

              Re: the earlier comment on Cheryl’s “connivance,” I find it’s cynicism raised to a new level and makes me question the commenter’s motives. There’s a human trait called empathy — and even when we may not comprehend another person’s decisions, if we can put ourselves, truly, into their shoes, we can move from cynicism to acceptance of their truth.

              I believe Cheryl’s truth wholeheartedly because she convincingly reveals to us her experiences and why a young person in her state of mind could be so foolishly unprepared for such an endeavor. We suffer and celebrate with her.

  5. Michael Smith writes:

    Great review, Bill. Cheryl’s raw honesty & unapologetic edginess proved to be endearing. I lost my Mom two years ago & this book captured just how easy it is to got lost in the aftermath.

    And yet, I’m fairly certain I hugged the book after I’d read the final page.

    • Bill writes:

      Right? I’m with you, Michael. There’s something about mourning that we don’t admit or don’t even know about, and WILD gets to this something amply.

  6. Susanna writes:

    Bill, you really put your finger on it! You probably don’t remember me from Casper Writing Conference many years ago, but your smart teaching there has been an inspiration over time, and this post is going to inform my current project. Thanks for the insight into what makes Wild wondrous.

    • Bill writes:

      Susanna, I do remember you. That was one great conference. I’m glad to hear you’re still at it!

  7. Kim Battern writes:

    What a tremendous review of Wild! I have been telling everyone about Wild (I just bought it for my mom for her birthday). It’s truly a great book, one you will not forget and will want to own and read again. I also love that this review was written by Bill Roorbach. I read your Summers with Juliet long ago (2 decades ago?) and it has stayed with me ever since. I wrote you a letter, asking you for a picture of Juliet (not included in the memoir). You sent me one and a nice letter. I recently read you have a novel coming out soon. Best of luck to Cheryl Strayed and Bill Roorbach, two amazingly human writers!

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks–I remember that correspondence. You’ll have to read Temple Stream to get caught up! And more photos on my website, billroorbach.com. Life Among Giants is the new novel, due November 13 from Algonquin.

  8. Lisa writes:

    What a powerful, insightful, gorgeous read on Strayed’s work. I read the book and loved it, and what you wrote has made me love it even more. Thank you!

  9. Joni writes:

    Oh yay! I’m needing a new book. This sounds perfect! Thanks Bill!

  10. Elana K. Arnold writes:

    So, so well said. I loved it, too.

  11. john lane writes:

    Can’t wait to read it! I’ve had it in my stack for nearly a year (the copy I have is an ARC I picked up last fall at a book festival). Good review thank you!

    • Bill Diskin writes:

      Completely agree will Bill on this one. Wild is simply a great book. Applause to Cheryl Strayed. Outstanding storytelling.

    • Bill writes:

      Let us know what you think, John.