At 26, four years after her mother’s death, Cheryl Strayed hiked over 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail—alone—to cope with her grief and a life that had spun out of control. Today, a New York Times bestselling author, her experience is laid out in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (read an excerpt here), a moving memoir that has us thinking a lot about our own mothers. Not to mention, what it would take to get through that kind of experience, with or without the grief of losing a mother.
To find out more about how the experience impacted her life, we interviewed Cheryl about the book and how it still impacts her now as an author and mother:
What did you expect that the Pacific Crest Trail would do to your relationship with your mother, and what actually happened?
In those early years when I was first grieving my mom, I thought there would be a point where it would be okay that my mom was dead. Now that my mom’s been dead for 21 years, I’ve learned that it’s never okay that my mom is dead. You know Mother’s Day is coming up, and what I want for Mother’s Day is my mom. I hate Mother’s Day: Even though I’m a mother and it’s lovely for my kids to celebrate me, I always feel on that day like, I don’t get to call my mom up and say nice things or bring her flowers or whatever.
I think on that Pacific Crest Trail hike, when I first went out there I thought, “Okay, I’ll reach that spiritual height that will make it okay that my mom’s dead.” But what I found is a very nuanced difference: I’ve reached that spiritual height where I’ve simply accepted that my mom is dead.
There’s a difference between acceptance and something being okay. When someone’s wronged you, you can forgive them without saying that their actions were good or acceptable; you can let go of real harm and forgive without saying it’s okay. I think with my mom it was about acceptance, and when I went out there on the PCT I didn’t realize that. But what I learned on the trip, that was such a big message for me, was really just accepting the facts of my life, the good ones, the bad ones; the ones that contradicted each other, and that a lot of that really alleviated my suffering in many ways. It’s still sad to me that my mother’s dead; I still don’t like it. But I can live with it and thrive even though that sad thing is true.
A lot of people participate in athletic events or commit to challenges like yours in honor of loved ones who’ve passed away. Why do you think so many people do this?
You’re right, it’s in during times of suffering, and also milestones—think of all the people who say “I’m turning 30,” or “I’m turning 40, so I’m doing x”—and it often is a physical thing, like a triathlon or marathon or hiking some long trail. I really think there’s something primal about that experience of having to push yourself physically, and there are places we can only go when tested physically. What people are actually doing is forcing themselves to physically suffer. There’s nobody who’s run a marathon who didn’t at some point want to stop, or think “why the hell am I doing this?” or feel agony, and yet so many people do it. We physically hurt ourselves because in some ways it makes us feel good. It can be incredibly psychologically challenging, but also gratifying and fulfilling.
I know that was true on the PCT. People always ask me: “Are your feet ok now?” And it was so painful and unpleasant, but it was also a piece of the trip that was important, in terms of going to that deeper place. Again, it leads back to acceptance. On the PCT I don’t think there was a day that went by that I didn’t tell myself to keep going and suffer through it, and that also reflects what we have to tell ourselves when something emotional makes us suffer. You know, you have a terrible breakup, and you think you can’t live without this person. But you can, and you do, and the way you do is you do it day by day—just like when you’re hiking or running, you get through it step by step. The physical thing teaches us how to survive emotionally.
So much of Wild is about that–you know there’s that scene on the first day when I load my backpack up and I can’t lift it. And that’s what the book is about: I have to literally bear weight that I cannot bear. But I also have to emotionally, metaphorically, figuratively bear weight that I can’t bear. And so the whole thing is how do I do that on the outside and how do I do that on the inside.
Since your PCT hike, are there practices in your daily life that you’ve carried through from that experiences?
Yeah, absolutely. I haven’t gone on such a big journey since my PCT hike, but I’ve taken mini ones. And I would say that the thing that I carry with me from the hike always is, first of all, a kind of deep sense of confidence.I think that’s another reason people run marathons, because they can say they did it, and it might have taken them five and half or eight hours, but they did it. And I think that people are fed by having those kinds of accomplishments in their lives, even well beyond when those times are passed.
It also gave me a real deep sense of my own resilience. For example–this seems so strange but it’s really true–I have two kids and I’ve given birth to both of them naturally, outside of a hospital without any interventions or drugs or anything. And my first child, it was a very long, hard labor; he was 11 pounds. And it was really, really really hard and really, really painful beyond anything I’ve experienced in my life. But I do remember at one point deep in labor, feeling at the end of my ability to go on, and I remember thinking of the PCT in that moment. Like I went deep inside myself to that experience on the PCT of having to hold on and keep going even when it didn’t feel possible. And it helped pull me through. So I do think that once you have that experience of resilience–you know, that you can do this, and recover from it, and keep going–it stays with you.