Two years ago, I hiked the South Downs Trek with two friends. It’s not that far, but takes in beautiful coastline, ending on the Seven Sisters (which is a series of more than 7 hills in quick succession). It was a great experience on a baking hot day, to just set my pack on my back and hike until we reached the end. Long and arduous, it was bonding, and eye-opening. The camaraderie was quick to set in – despite the three of us being the youngest hikers by a good number of years – the hard bits were done together including a gruelling 45degree slope of blazing white chalk, and the glee at reaching the final stop was shared. It’s something that I look back on with happiness, and would love to try again. Hiking has always been an important thing for me. When I need time to think, I go for a walk. When I want to explore, I go for a walk. Yes, I do a lot of climbing too, but there’s something to be said for the rhythm of walking, reminding yourself of who and where you are in this world, and allowing your body to travel across the earth.
Cheryl Strayed had a similar realisation, though in a much more dramatic way. After the untimely death of her mother, the end of her marriage, and the recognition that life hadn’t gone to plan, she set out to hike the 1100+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone, without knowledge or full understanding. But with a brave determination that often only comes from deep suffering. I’m so grateful that she wrote Wild and that I’ve been able to pick up her story. It is inspiring, makes me grateful for the life I have, and eager to get out on a trail once more.
This book isn’t just about a long walk in America. It’s the discovery of self in the most extreme of circumstances. I admit, at the start of the book I was a little cynical – the life Strayed described was so far from my own, that I couldn’t help feel a little disconnected. I’d never suffered such traumas. I’d never made such disastrous life choices. The only thing I could relate to was the desire to get out and see what these bodies are capable of. To be honest, regardless of the motivation that gets you onto that path, that is the thing that links all hikers. A desire to test limits in the beauty of the wilderness.
Wild doesn’t hold anything back either. There’s no glamorous hiker with a rugged tan and perfectly dry-shampooed hair going for a stroll. It’s brutal, uncomfortable, devastating, and destroying. Six days on Kilimanjaro made me realise what the wilderness can do to your body and mind – back in a hotel after less than a week it took nearly three showers to get my hair clean, and my ribs stuck out more than they have in my life. Extrapolate to Strayed’s months on the trail, she openly admits to the disgusting side to long walking. Which just makes me all the more keen to give it a go. It’s something that anyone can do – experienced or not, you don’t have to be an ‘outdoorsy’ type, you just have to be willing to keep going, no matter what.
Even in reading her pages, I can see things I would have done differently. Things I would like to try. And things I would never consider. In her descriptions, I’ve found a guidebook to one possible way of hiking the PCT. Or indeed any such trail. It’s also a guidebook to overcoming grief and allowing yourself to heal. It’s not a self-help, it’s one woman’s journey to uncovering what she’d lost and what she needed to let go. For anyone needing to come to terms with loss, read this book. For anyone wanting inspiration for an adventure, read this book. For anyone wanting to discover the amazing capacity of one 26-year-old woman, read this book. It doesn’t matter who you are – like the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild has something to share with everyone.