Friday, June 21, 2013

A Path, a Compass, a Map

I guess it isn't surprising how often I end up writing about walking, since I do a lot of walking. It's even sort of a professional interest, because of labyrinths. But I read a book this week that doesn't seem to be about either labyrinths or walking, in the everyday sense of walking. I meant to read Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail last year, when it came out, but I got sidetracked. It's probably just as well, since it means more to me now than it would have a year ago.

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and the events of an actual life a thousand times more compelling than the best-crafted novel ever written. Such is Wild, a memoir of a woman's solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, undertaken in sort of a desperate, intuitive belief that something good would come out of it. As Miss Strayed tells it, she was in a Midwestern outdoor store buying a shovel when she picked up a guidebook for walkers of the PCT. She glanced at the book, then put it back, but something about the cover image of mountains and sky spoke to her mysteriously, and while driving to her home in Minneapolis, she was captured by the idea of hiking the trail herself.

It was a somewhat unexpected decision for someone who had never gone backpacking. But at the age of 26, battered by the loss of her mother to cancer, the breakup of her family, a marriage that had come unglued, an unexpected pregnancy, and a mounting sense of turmoil and emptiness, Strayed undertook the journey in a bid to find answers or least have a chance to think things through. As frequently happens, the reality was very different than what she had imagined.

As a novice hiker, Strayed had little idea of how to properly pack and ended up carrying a load that felt like "a Volkswagen Beetle" on her back. Men she met on the trail had trouble even picking up her pack, much less understanding how she managed to walk with it. Her hiking boots blistered her feet and rubbed them raw, a problem that persisted throughout the trip. She had little money, and despite the carefully chosen protein bars and dehydrated food, was always hungry. She learned to use a compass along the way, crossed rockslides and ice fields, edged around rattlesnakes, encountered bears, mastered the intricacies of a wayward water purifier, slept alone in a tent, worried about mountain lions, and occasionally sang to herself.

She had imagined walking along in soothing solitude, breathing in deeply and letting the beauty of the passing scenery heal the broken places. What actually happened was that pushing through the difficulties -- the skin lacerations, the pain, the hunger and thirst, the fears, the dangers, and the mistakes -- healed her. She discovered that she could stand on her own two feet by continuing to put one in front of the other, and the beauty of the wilderness, experienced at unexpected moments in bursts of clarity, was that much sweeter for being attained so dearly.

There are many ways to interpret the story. In one way, it's a tale about learning to mother (and father) oneself. It's also a hero's journey, one that ends with the book itself, the author's "boon" to the rest of us. While it might not be apparent, the PCT, though linear on a map, is experienced as a maze in which choices must often be made. No two hikers ever experience the trail the same way. As Miss Strayed herself seems to invoke Dante early on when she speaks of feeling lost in the woods of her life, I have to tell you that I thought of The Divine Comedy often while reading this story. Like Dante the pilgrim, Miss Strayed found that, paradoxically, the only way out of the woods was the long way, the via dolorosa, through the Inferno.

The author is candid about her struggles and shortcomings and the naivete with which she began her journey. It's borne in upon the reader that it was sheer determination (and luck) that saw her through. There was every possibility for things to end in disaster. Still, events demonstrate that her intuition to undertake a difficult task to find her measure was a good one. I'm tempted to report that, like Ginger Rogers, Miss Strayed did everything a man could do, except backwards and in heels, but that's not really true, except that it is, sort of. Unlike Dante, she didn't have a Virgil constantly beside her in the tough bits, unless you count the guidebooks she carried. She found mentors along the way, but it was up to her to separate the wheat from the chaff and decide for herself what kind of trip it would be.

I doubt that I would ever hike the PCT on my own, but I recognize the impulse that led the author to do it, and I admire it. There are some things you just have to figure out for yourself. I started the book with tears at the descriptions of Miss Strayed's early sorrows and losses and ended it with tears of a different kind, and that's never a bad way to end a story.