Cheryl Strayed hiked about 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail alone when she was just 26. We interviewed her about how the experience helped her cope with her mother’s early death, but her new memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, puts into words an almost unimaginable journey. This excerpt from the book gives a glimpse of all the reasons she truly started her hike in the summer of 1995:
My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings. There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning, composed of weeks of shopping and packing and preparing to do it. There was the quitting my job as a waitress and finalizing my divorce and selling almost everything I owned and saying goodbye to my friends and visiting my mother’s grave one last time. There was the driving across the country from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and, a few days later, catching a flight to Los Angeles and a ride to the town of Mojave and another ride to the place where the PCT crossed a highway.
At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it.
And then there was the real live truly doing it.
The staying and doing it, in spite of everything. In spite of the bears and the rattlesnakes and the scat of the mountain lions I never saw; the blisters and scabs and scrapes and lacerations. The exhaustion and the deprivation; the cold and the heat; the monotony and the pain; the thirst and the hunger; the glory and the ghosts that haunted me as I hikedbeleven hundred miles from the Mojave Desert to the state of Washington by myself.
And finally, once I’d actually gone and done it, walked all those miles for all those days, there was the realization that what I’d thought was the beginning had not really been the beginning at all. That in truth my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail hadn’t begun when I made the snap decision to do it. It had begun before I even imagined it, precisely four years, seven months, and three days before, when I’d stood in a little room at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and learned that my mother was going to die.
I was wearing green. Green pants, green shirt, green bow in my hair. It was an outfit that my mother had sewn—she’d made clothes for me all of my life. Some of them were just what I dreamed of having, others less so. I wasn’t crazy about the green pantsuit, but I wore it anyway, as a penance, as an offering, as a talisman.
All that day of the green pantsuit, as I accompanied my mother and stepfather, Eddie, from floor to floor of the Mayo Clinic while my mother went from one test to another, a prayer marched through my head, though prayer is not the right word to describe that march. I wasn’t humble before God. I didn’t even believe in God. My prayer was not: Please, God, take mercy on us.
I was not going to ask for mercy. I didn’t need to. My mother was forty-five. She looked fine. For a good number of years she’d mostly been a vegetarian. She’d planted marigolds around her garden to keep bugs away instead of using pesticides. My siblings and I had been made to swallow raw cloves of garlic when we had colds. People like my mother did not get cancer. The tests at the Mayo Clinic would prove that, refut- ing what the doctors in Duluth had said. I was certain of this. Who were those doctors in Duluth anyway? What was Duluth? Duluth! Duluth was a freezing hick town where doctors who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about told forty-five-year-old vegetarian-ish, garlic- eating, natural-remedy-using nonsmokers that they had late-stage lung cancer, that’s what.
That was my prayer: Fuckthemfuckthemfuckthem.
And yet, here was my mother at the Mayo Clinic getting worn out if she had to be on her feet for more than three minutes. “You want a wheelchair?” Eddie asked her when we came upon a row of them in a long carpeted hall.
“She doesn’t need a wheelchair,” I said.
“Just for a minute,” said my mother, almost collapsing into one, her eyes meeting mine before Eddie wheeled her toward the elevator.
I followed behind, not allowing myself to think a thing. We were finally on our way up to see the last doctor. The real doctor, we kept call- ing him. The one who would gather everything that had been gathered about my mom and tell us what was true. As the elevator car lifted, my mother reached out to tug at my pants, rubbing the green cotton between her fingers proprietarily.
“Perfect,” she said.
I was twenty-two, the same age she was when she’d been pregnant with me. She was going to leave my life at the same moment that I came into hers, I thought. For some reason that sentence came fully formed into my head just then, temporarily blotting out the Fuck them prayer. I almost howled in agony. I almost choked to death on what I knew before I knew. I was going to live the rest of my life without my mother. I pushed the fact of it away with everything in me. I couldn’t let myself believe it then and there in that elevator and also go on breathing, so I let myself believe other things instead. Such as if a doctor told you that you were going to die soon, you’d be taken to a room with a gleaming wooden desk.
This was not so.