Cheryl Strayed, Wild, Knopf, 2012
In writing narrative nonfiction, especially memoir, the difficulty is knowing what details to leave in. In novels, you wonder what to include in order to advance the plot, how to develop a tone, how to create a sense of scene. But in narrative nonfiction, you're not only telling a story, you're making a point. Why this segment from the whole life, the demands of a page limit ask? Stendhal, in The Red and the Black, put every detail in. When recounting a living room, he wrote in detail of the mantel, the chair, the carpet. These aren't meant to be symbolic; they just contribute to the overall feeling, the texture of the text. Narrative nonfiction requires feeling and texture too, but you have to be careful. If you overly recount the mantel in the living room, the reader will come to suspect that the mantel is the meaning. Something like, you can't go home again if you don't have a mantel upon which to place your heirlooms.
In Wild, Cheryl Strayed details her 1180 or so mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail—a trail that runs from the border of Mexico to Canada—in only 311 pages. She has to choose just the right details so that the book has meaning. Also so that it's not 10,000 pages long.
Unlike Stendhal's mantel, the boots here are symbolic. They don't fit right. They chew her feet into raw meat. Life so far has not fit her right. It has chewed her up, left her raw. The walking itself is symbolic. Early on, in the preface, when she's laying out the argument for why this story, why these details, she writes about her body, her plan, her destination; she writes,
I gazed at my bare battered feet, with their smattering of remaining toenails. They were ghostly pale to the line a few inches above my ankles, where the wool socks I usually wore ended. My calves above them were muscled and golden and hairy, dusted with dirt and a constellation of bruises and scratches. I'd started walking in the Mojave Desert and I didn't plan to stop until I touched my hand to a bridge that crosses the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border with the grandiose name the Bridge of the Gods.
I looked north, in its direction—the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, where I'd been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one. I knew. There was always only one.
To keep walking (6).
Every detail important to Wild is packed into those three paragraphs. The boots that will abuse her, the feet that will become mangled in the walking, and the phrase, "to keep walking" that becomes one of Wild's repeated prayers. She also repeats the phrase "On the PCT" as if it's a mantra. She mentions "Bridge of the Gods" not only as a physical destination, but as her spiritual one. That is where she will walk—somewhere as linguistically symbolic as the walk itself. The walking is the healing, even as it ruins her feet.
The walking itself is told by the blisters and lost-toenails. The walking is rendered not so much by the images of dirt and steps but upon Strayed's body. Her hips are bleeding from the backpack's chafing straps and belts. Her knees and shins are wrecked by a fall. Her feet. Always her feet. At some points of her trek, she gets off the trail to take a break from the arduous hiking up and down, first through the Sierra Nevadas and later through the Cascades. Each time, she's ravenously hungry. She downs candy bars and chips, "stuff she I? would not normally eat." And then, usually, she runs into people who invite her to dinner. Why doesn't she tell me where they go? What they eat? Doesn't she know I love to know what people eat for dinner? But no, she's telling me in her choice of detail, .you don't get to know. The Butterfingers and Doritos were a direct consequence of the walking. The immediate walking hunger. The fun dinner with new friends—not part of the walking. That part she had to leave out.
Strayed doesn't shy away from the details of the physical assault that is the walking of the PCT. At a stopover in Sierra City, Strayed writes,
I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did like a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump as if I'd been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by my pack. Beneath the bruises and wounds and dirt I could see new ridges of muscle, my flesh taut in places that had recently been soft (129).
Why would anyone choose to do this to her body? The other details that Strayed allows are the details of why. This book would be plodding if it were just the story of hiking the trail. It is the body itself that tells the story.
Descriptions of the trail, like "The landscape around me was still arid, dominated by the same chaparral and sagebrush it had been all along" (68) over and over would get as redundant as the hike I'm sure was at times for Strayed. But Strayed avoids hiking-redundancy by casting for details with a net that catches her personal history. The primary catalyst for this hike is her mother's death, four years before she takes off for the PCT. Here, Strayed includes details so sweet and harrowing that one message I take from the book is that I should be a less good mother so if I die early, my children won't suffer so terribly. She writes how her mother told her when her children were born, that she would "count every finger and toe and eyelash...trace the lines on your hands" (135). The mother's love is written upon Strayed's body and when that mother dies, the body doesn't know what to do with itself except throw itself into potentially fulfilling, although inevitably destructive, circumstances.
The stories about her mother are told in such sweet detail that I feel them in my own body. Her mother told Strayed that she was like her: a seeker. When Strayed was frustrated with her sick mother as she tried to put on her mother's sock her mother, too weak to do it herself, calls Strayed "honey."
'Honey,' she said eventually, gazing at me, her hand reaching to stroke the top of my head. It was a word she used often throughout my childhood, delivered in a highly specific tone. This is not the way I wanted it to be, that single honey said, but it was the way it was. It was this very acceptance of suffering that annoyed me most about my mom, her unending optimism and cheer (20).
My body has been in many of these places. This book relates to me viscerally. I lived in Portland. One of my parents died when I was in my twenties. I've slept with too many boys. I've self-medicated with drugs. I've even walked, albeit only eight miles, part of the PCT. I wonder about the reader who doesn't have the same access points as I do. Wild succeeds through so many details that almost everyone could have an access point, but it pulls the reader in through foreign detail too. Losing six toenails, and hearing about them one by one, is the kind of excruciating detail that people love to squirm at as they read for more. In between torturing the body, the trail provides solace to Strayed in its repetitiveness and redundancy for the pain of her mother's death. The recurring "just keep walking" is as incessant as the memory of her father abusing her mother. It's as constant as the mismanagement of her first marriage.
She doesn't let the narrative of the trail drone on and on too long as she walks on and on. The various mantras throughout the book—keep walking, the bridge of the gods, honey, the PCT—serve as regulatory principles that remind the reader that every detail is interrelated. Strayed interweaves. Take for example the image of the fox with its chestnut colored coat. It runs away from her and instead of calling out the animal's name, like she did with the moose (it was really a bull) and the bear, she calls out, "Mom. Mom. Mom." Later, when Strayed has been kicked out of a for-pay campground, she huddles in her tent, running her finger over her tattoo. The tattoo is an image of Lady, her mom's horse, whose coat was the same color as the fox's. The memory that follows is of the time, after her mother's death, when her step-father has stopped taking care of Lady and Strayed and her brother, Lief have to shoot the horse. She doesn't shy away from the details here; it is much worse than anyone could have expected.
'Shoot her again,' I gasped... Her eyes were wild upon us, shocked by what we'd done, her face a constellation of bloodless holes....
Finally, "Lady took one wobbling step and then fell onto her front knees, her body tilting hideously forward as if she were a great ship slowly sinking into the sea" (161). It goes on, with these details, until it finally connects back to the big why of the nonstop walking,
I knelt beside Lady's belly and ran my hands along her blood-speckled body one last time. She was still warm, just as my mother had been when I'd come into the room at the hospital and seen that she'd died without me (162).
This book is brutal on bodies. From detailing the skin pulling back on a blister, to the bruise on her ankle where the heroin went in, to her mother's blood pooling in her back, to her father beating her mother's head against the ground, nothing is left out, as long as it relates to the why of the walking or the walking itself. The brutality of the past matches the brutality of the hike.
This is how Strayed does it. She keeps walking into the night to find a new camping spot. As she sits, the question of why she's doing this starts to poke at her. The reader wonders again, too. Why? And then she tells the story of what propelled her here. Another bit of history that forced her on this clarifying march. Through these stories of interweaving bodies, I begin to understand how Strayed makes what is already a good story—that of hiking the PCT—into something artful. The image of Strayed putting the sock on the mother dovetails with the image from the preface of the book of Strayed looking at her own feet. Strayed loses her boot as it falls into the treetops below the trail. She is as helpless as her mother and yet not helpless at all. She stands up and starts walking. It's not often that narrative nonfiction uses the conventions of poetry to forward its narrative.
There are a few things that tripped me up in the book. Strayed repeats some words and phrases like "end of an era" that I probably wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't read the book in two and a half days but that I find grating once in awhile. And I want to know more about the places she's walking through. My primary question is about the title. For a book about the wilderness, by the time I've finished Wild, I don't have a great sense of the actual trail. The details, by sheer force of her narrative impulse, tend toward the human. I remember the towns. I remember the people. I remember the boots. I remember some of the animals but I don't remember the quality of the dirt, the twists of grass, the different sounds of blue. In that sense, the traditional narrative doesn't allow for that kind of wild. The prose isn't wild. But perhaps the title of Wild isn't meant to suggest the book is about wilding—the antinomian kind where lyric essays and certain kinds of poetry seek to undo convention. Perhaps the wild here is the wild of grief, the wild of loss. And strangely, Strayed takes to the mountains, following a straight, human-made line up a country full of people to finally tame that amorphous grief into a companionable body. [NW]