Backpacking and more

Backpacking and more

A solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail helps the author come face to face with nature and find herself

Dan Oko
December 23 , 2014
02 Min Read

The Pacific Crest Trail stretches some 4,285km, tracing the mountains along the West Coast of the United States between Mexico and Canada. An epic hike, it follows the ridgelines of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges through the states of California, Oregon and Washington, a rugged wilderness populated by bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes. The trail was first proposed prior to World War II, but it took until 1993 for the US Forest Service and its advocates to complete construction.

These days about 300 trekkers attempt to hike the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) every year; of those, about 180 succeed. In the modern era, more people have climbed Mount Everest than finished the PCT.


That didn’t stop Cheryl Strayed. At the tender age of 26, the would-be American author quit her job as a waitress, bought boots, a backpack and guidebook and headed out on a solo 1,770km trek along the PCT. Covering roughly the same distance as Mumbai to Jaipur, Strayed’s hike forms the backbone of her brave new memoir, Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found. Freshly divorced, mourning the recent death of her mother from cancer and flirting with a heroin addiction, Strayed utilises clear-eyed introspection and sparkling prose when it comes to recounting her trek from the Mojave Desert, a day’s drive from Los Angeles, across the iconic high Sierras, and through the Oregon woods.

Strayed never aimed to conquer the whole PCT. But over the course of a long summer, she surmounts obstacles that would give even the sturdiest climbers pause. Along the way she faces down wildlife, finds detours when snow forces her off the trail, copes with hunger, erratic water supplies, and even lost shoes. She frets over her dwindling finances, and her relationships with men. Yet, as the distance collapses between her journey and her life, Strayed emerges a brave and ingenious guide to the PCT.

“Until now,” she writes, “I hadn’t understood the world’s vastness — hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be — until each mile was beheld at walking speed. And yet there was also its opposite, the strange intimacy I’d come to have with the trail, the way the piñon pines and monkey flowers I passed that morning, the shallow streams I crossed, felt familiar and known, though I’d never passed them or crossed them before.”

In the end, Strayed offers a curious counterpoint to the Elizabeth Gilbert’s smash memoir Eat, Pray, Love — unlike her fellow American, who sought enlightenment abroad, Strayed stays home and learns to stand on her own sans coaches or gurus. Wild also calls to mind Bill Bryson’s best-selling A Walk in the Woods, his 1998 account of hiking the Appalachian Trail, a sibling to the PCT in the American East. Like Bryson’s book, Wild is about much more than backpacking. Strayed hits the trail in a state of spaced-out, desperate mourning, and by the end she finds herself — both metaphorically and literally — on the PCT.

You’ll want to follow her every step of the way.

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