Thursday, March 14, 2013
Notes from the Nightstand: Wild
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is a memoir recounting the summer 20 years ago when Cheryl Strayed hiked the PCT from California to Oregon. I have read A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson's humorous account of walking the Appalachian Trail (the PCT's East Coast counterpart), and loved it even though I'm not much of an outdoorswoman - as you all know. He blatantly outs himself (as Strayed also does) as being terribly underprepared and out of shape for his journey, but his self-deprecating humor lets you identify and commiserate with him rather than spending the whole book thinking, "What the hell is wrong with you?" Which is exactly what continually popped into my mind while reading Wild.
Maybe Bryson's book was also more palatable because at the time of his trip, he was a middle-aged man who took a buddy along with him on the trail, while Strayed was a young, twenty-something woman who insisted on hiking alone. I don't know ANYTHING about wilderness survival, but I know that you should never go out alone, even if you're a 300 lb. linebacker for the the LA Raiders who's carrying a gun. You can still break a leg and be totally screwed... or have to cut your own arm off like that guy from 127 Hours. A young woman alone, especially a very trusting and impulsive woman like Strayed, is just asking for trouble. The fact that she never actually gets into a situation she can't get out of is chalked up to the kindness of strangers, but I think she just got really lucky.
Aside from her impulsiveness and foolhardiness, Strayed is also in mourning. Her mother died when she was in her early twenties (a few years before her PCT trip) and her despair and self-destructiveness were so great that she divorced her first husband, whom she claimed to still be in love with, in the wake of losing her only parent. She cheated, she did heroin, she couldn't keep a job. She decided to hike the PCT to be alone and sort her life out. It's a little Eat, Pray, Love, although admittedly with less self-delusion and self-congratulation. Strayed is pretty honest about being screwed up and about how the trail doesn't really fix her life, but a stoic like me still can't help but want to reach out and shake her.
A person like me also feels exasperation with the girly girls who say things like:
By necessity, out here on the trail, I felt I had to sexually neutralize the men I met by being, to the extent that was possible, one of them. I'd never been that way in my life, interacting with men in the even-keeled indifference that being one of the guys entails. It didn't feel like an easy thing to endure, as I sat in my tent while the men played cards. I'd been a girl forever, after all, familiar with and reliant upon the powers my very girlness granted me. Suppressing those powers gave me a gloomy twinge in the gut. Being one of the guys meant I could not go on being the woman I'd become expert at being among men. It was a version of myself I'd first tasted way back when I was a child of eleven and I'd felt that prickly rush of power when grown men would turn their heads to look at me or whistle or say Hey pretty baby just loudly enough that I could hear. The one I'd banked on all through high school, starving myself thin, playing cute and dumb so I'd be popular and loved. The one I'd fostered all through my young adult years while trying on different costumes - earth girl, punk girl, cowgirl, riot girl, ballsy girl. The one for whom behind every hot pair of boots or sexy little skirt or flourish of the hair there was a trapdoor that led to the least true version of me.
Yet she can barely give up the need to please and attract men long enough to make her own journey in safety, despite the fact that she acknowledges it's in her own best interest to not be too appealing. She carries a large pack of condoms with her on the trail even though she only has one change of clothes and the barest essentials of food and water, hauled in an overweight, burdensome backpack. She picks up guys all along the trail and assesses all the men she meets based on their sexual appeal. At one point she even has a friend mail her a resupply box containing lacy black underwear so she could feel like her "real world" self again in a town where she planned to make a stopover for a couple of days. Then she actually seems more upset about the underwear than about the $20 she desperately needs for food when the box fails to show up on time.
She makes her "girlness" sound pitiful, but she never really acknowledges that it doesn't serve her in any way, that it isn't helping her achieve her goals, and that what she wants and what she needs are not in alignment. She touches on her issues with her deadbeat father and the foolishness of her choices, but I so wanted to her to just come right out and say that looking for love in all the wrong places makes you a victim. And your beauty it isn't a form of power you have over men; it's your neediness to be desired at all times that still gives men the power over you. She never can bring herself to fully go there.
I love memoirs, but they are tough to get right. They sometimes seem a bit too opportunistic. To fight through suffering that you can't avoid makes you brave. To create a world of suffering for yourself and then write a book about it is... what? Masochistic? Self-exploitative? Ridiculous? I guess you could describe me with the same words for reading the whole thing. I guess I just wanted to see if she changed at all, but I don't really think she did. She talks about maturing and finding an end to some of her grief, but I think a lot of this is just her core personality: she's the kind of person who walks across half of California with only twenty cents in her pocket because she didn't realize she'd need to save up more money for her trip. I'm just not like her. Thank goodness!