At points on the trail, you declined the invitation to hike with other people, and you say in the book that it’s because the purpose of being there was to be alone. Why was solitude so important for you?
It’s such a hard question…I did of course sometimes enjoy being with other people and I got a lot of help from other people, but yeah, the whole point was solitude, and I was mostly alone. To me, being alone means you absolutely have to rely on yourself, and there was something really powerful in doing so. We may not have memories of this, but when we’re like two and three years old, we always always say “by myself.” You want to put your own pants on. You want to open the door. You want to do those things by yourself; it’s like a developmental stage when a child naturally needs to feel a sense of accomplishment and independence, and the only way to do that is to do it alone. A lot of people go through this in their twenties, and I think maybe the people who don’t insist on doing things by themselves are in trouble, because they don’t know how to be grown-ups yet.
So, it was just in a more extreme way on the PCT that I was declaring I needed to make this trip work without the comfort and consolation of other people being between me and whatever it is I fear. For example at night, if I were camped with other people and I heard a snap-crackle-pop in the woods, I would be alarmed, but less alarmed than if I was alone. If there was a bear and there were three other people, the bear might eat one of those other three people! There was something powerful about really being forced to rely on myself, to be brave. And not to mention, to have no distractions.
This was the summer of ‘95, the one really big significant change on the trail between now and then is the internet and technology. I didn’t have an iPad or iPod or cell phone or any of those things with me. And now people do. I’ve met people who hike and listen to digital books, and they’re focused on whatever they’re listening to in their headphones. Whereas I was just alone. I had no sound, I had to sing to myself; the only sound was the world around me. I loved meeting other people and having conversations; it made time go faster and served as a great distraction. But most of the time I knew that I needed to be alone with my thoughts. And boy, the mind has a way of working on its own when you’re in that much solitude. I really thought about everything in my life, including things I didn’t even know would come up again—suddenly I’d be thinking about that one day in third grade when I got in that fight. It’s like your brain’s way of working it all out, and it actually has the opportunity to do so, free of distraction.
You’re a mother yourself now. How did the experience of losing your mother impact your own decisions and approach to motherhood?
The most wonderfully healing experience, when it comes to my mother, has been having my kids. I just love my kids the way my mother loved me, and when I give that love to my kids it gives me a new perspective on how she loved me and my siblings. She would tell me that she loved us, but I didn’t quite know what that love meant until I myself became a mother. I feel a lot of joy around what a spectacular gift she gave me, and also a lot of sorrow, because I know how painful it was for her to have to leave us so soon. My two biggest fears are no question first that one of my children will die, and second that I’ll die young and leave them without a mother. Having my kids has given me a deeper perception of what my mom must have experienced in her death.
I think that the my experience on the PCT was really the bridge between my sorrow and loss and grief, and then the joy of this next chapter of my next life, which is the life in which I met my husband and had my kids and came into my own as a writer. I think those experiences are all really connected.
A lot of my friends have told me that they cried or called their moms after reading the chapter that describes your mother’s death. Did you write the booking hoping to inspire readers specifically in regard to their mothers?
No, I don’t ever write from that mindset–of hoping that readers will ‘blank.’ I always hope to reach readers and move readers and write stories (fiction or non-fiction) that make people feel more human. And to me the way to do that is to explore my own full humanity on the page. I think the minute that you’re trying to persuade someone of something or purposely bring about an emotion in a reader, that’s not really art; that’s advertising. You know, it’s like “Oh, go buy this cheeseburger; go call your mom and tell her you love her!”
What’s also interesting is how you bring your story to my story. You hear me writing about my love for my mother and my loss, and your response is to call your mother and tell you you love her. Many people have written to me and said that’s what they did, and then other people say they also lost their mother and loved her, so they’re crying along with me and feeling that loss. And yet still other people have mothers who are alive and well, who they can’t call and say “I love you so much, you’re so wonderful,” because they’re not wonderful. Everyone brings their own mother experience to that chapter, and that to me is what’s really exciting about any kind of art, but especially books. That you tell a story and, if you’ve done it well, people recognize themselves in relation to it, and it feels like part of their own life, too.
Another interesting thing that people have said to me over and over again about the mother in Wild is how unique it is to see such a positive image of a mother in literature. So often memoirs are about mothers who failed in some way, who are alcoholics or addicts or withholding or mentally ill. And many of them are beautiful, great, memoirs. But that they were struck by a portrait of such a loving mom, and that being kind of unique in literature because so often when people write about their mothers, it’s to critique them. And so I was really struck by that–I thought about it and realized that there aren’t a ton of great mothers in literature, sadly, because there are a lot of good mothers in life.
Cheryl Strayed is the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Wild, the novel Torch, and Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice column to be released this July. Wild will also be published in Brazil, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom commonwealth, Taiwan, Denmark, France and Italy, and has been optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard. Connect with Cheryl on Facebook and Twitter, or visit her website, cherylstrayed.com.