Dan and I escaped to the mountains this weekend. I brought Wild by Cheryl Strayed with me. I spent my weekend as much with Ms. Strayed as I did with my husband. I was craving this book. I needed it. And I needed it now.
Ms. Strayed has already written her way into my life as Sugar, the brilliant and moving columnist on the Rumpus. She knows all the right things to say, for everything, it seems. She gives tough love when its needed, she gives permission for forgiveness. Most of all, she encourages all of us to reach deep, live large and be true.
So does Wild, her beautiful memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail four years after her mother dies. The subtitle to this book reads: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. And I’ve been feeling a little lost lately, a little needing to be found. I knew Dear Sugar would speak to me in that wise sparkling voice, not with answers, but in words that would illuminate those deep murky thoughts and ponderings: What am I thinking about? What do I want in this life? Those questions seem so simple to ask, the most basic—but the answers are not always clear.
When Cheryl hits the trail in the Mojave desert, she’s a bit of a mess. She’s fresh of a heated affair that involved half-love with a man accompanied by dabblings in heroin. Her divorce has just been finalized, and her immediate family is fractured by her mother’s death. Cheryl’s alone and out to sea. To say that Cheryl is underprepared is an understatement. Her boots are too small and her pack is too heavy. There are a million reasons at any given time that she should turn back and give up on her 1100 mile hike. But she doesn’t. “My mind shifted into a primal gear that was void of anything but forward motion.”
Forward motion. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I suppose there are times in all of our lives when we feel like we’re swirling around and around rather than moving forward. At least I’ve been feeling that way. In a new place, with few friends, where I can’t work. Where am I heading? I will often ask myself. Cheryl reminded me that at some point you have to stop asking yourself that question, point yourself in the direction you intend to go, put your head down and start walking, irregardless of the rattlesnakes, bears or heavy snows that may be in your path.
me with my own ridiculously enormous backpack
Dan and I stayed at his brother’s cabin in Panorama. There’s a big leather couch next to enormous floor-to-ceiling windows where the sun streams in all day, the view all mountains and sky. I would wake up, make the coffee, nestle in with my book and read for an hour and then another hour. Is there anything better than a silent sunny morning on a couch wrapped in a fuzzy blanket, the man you love sleeping not 20 feet away, a hot cup of coffee in hand, reading a sentence like this one: “I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too.” ?
I knew eventually he would wake up and we would eat breakfast and ski and then hot tub with ice cold beers in our hands. But not yet. It was still morning and I was still reading, savoring every moment and every word as they passed, one by one. I love that feeling…when time is like honey: golden and sticky and sweet.
I have not been feeling gathered up inside lately so much as twisted. I admit I’ve been feeling the pressure of time—like there are certain things I should have done by now in my life, that there are certain things I need to do before I turn another age. Wild softened those feelings. Rather than seeing time as a narrow window, it unfurled before me, long and loose and open.
(a moment of mountain induced ecstasy in the Patagonian Andes)
Wild also reminded me that things are possible. Things that seem impossible. Years ago, at the age of 23, I decided to travel through South America alone. The idea of me, Sky, a sheltered Minnesota often-introvert, traveling alone across a continent was absurd and scary and indeed impossible for a lot of reasons. I felt as if I were standing at the edge of a cliff about jump, just praying that the parachute would open. But I did it.
Take Cheryl. She vastly underestimates how much money she’ll need on her trip and is often down to pennies (literally.)
“Before I left, I hadn’t calculated how much my journey would reasonably be expected to cost and saved up that amount plus enough to be my cushion against expenses. If I’d done that, I wouldn’t have been here, eighty-some days out on the PCT, broke but okay—getting to do what I wanted to do even though a reasonable person would have said I couldn’t afford to do it.”
Sometimes it’s good to be unreasonable. It allows for so much more than being reasonable. That’s when we take risks and careen head first outside of our comfort zones–into the blank unknown. I struggle with this always. But I remember what sparked to life for me in South America.
(feeling small in a great big world)
I learned more than I ever have about myself and about life on that trip. I am who I am because of it. It was a time of true magic, where the memories will always glitter. Wild was like a best friend whispering in my ear: we make our own magic in life. We write our own stories. No one can tell us who we are or how to live. It’s all up to us. It’s time to stop thinking about what to do or how or when, time to put aside our questions and fears, time to start walking.
I’ll leave you with a quote that Cheryl gives us as we embark on Part Five, the last leg of her journey.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
–Mary Oliver, “Summer Day”