For thousands of years, humans across the globe have felt the pull. You know what I’m talking about. That incessant tugging on your heart, pulling you in a new direction. An insatiable craving to get out of your bubble and do something wild. A whispering demand to be something more. To your family, to the world, to yourself. The overwhelming desire for apparition to be real. Not only for the ability to travel in truly immediate fashion, but to make that figurative tugging a reality.
Hey. The name’s Mel. And I’m here to bring you literary experiences that will fuel your hunger for exploration, hone your self acceptance, make you cackle with laughter, and bring out tiny magical truths in our daily realities. I’m a literary lover, travel junkie, Disney guru, music/theater enthusiast, Whovian, Potterhead (clearly), and I have a travel blog called New Little Habitats (www.newlittlehabitats.com) where I write about my own solo travels. Oh, and I’m 100% convinced my family immigrated to the United States from Hobbiton. At a stunning 4’10”, I’m ‘bout that Shire life, y’all.
I read not to escape but to expand. My world is infinitely richer when the wisdom and diversity of other people and places, real and fantastical, are incorporated into my daily life. Adventure novels, travel memoirs, and comedian autobiographies are the BEST weapons for combating the mundane, the blues, and the common cold. Ok, maybe not a cold, but you get the point. They’re natural uppers. They broaden your sense of humor, build your humility, and increase your capacity for human connection. Each third Tuesday, I’ll review one of these types of books.
I need y’all to hold me to these two goals for each post:
1. Be at least mildly witty.
2. Be honest but optimistic.
Think y’all can do that for me? Just let me know in the comments how I’m doing. Now enough about me, let’s talk about a woman name Cheryl Strayed and her account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the book ‘Wild’.
I like to dog-ear the bottom corners of pages that contain a particularly moving or important nugget of wordsmithing. This poor book is dog-eared into oblivion. The protagonist is my age at the time she went on this journey so even though our life experiences don’t directly mirror one another, I can relate to her on a rather astonishing level. Another bad habit I perpetuate is that of not reading lengthy prologues. Anything exceeding 20 pages is too long for a prologue in my humble (but correct) opinion. Strayed’s prologue is a glorious four pages. And I’ll be damned if she doesn’t completely captivate the audience in those four short pages. I genuinely couldn’t wait to start the story. I wasn’t bogged down by cursory details. She just gives the reader the information they need to know about herself, her life, and the trail, with the immediate courtesy of warning us about the severity of the experiences that were forthcoming.
The PCT is a national wilderness trail that extends from the California/Mexico border to the Washington/Canada border. In five parts, she chronicles her three months on the PCT with glimpses into the hardships and triumphs of the 26 years leading up to this journey. The true base of the story, however, is the death of her mother a few years before she starts her hike. Like so many facing seemingly insurmountable loss, she spiraled out of control. Drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, infidelity, you name it. She flung herself full force into destruction, and her way out was the PCT. I feel obligated to state that the descriptions of her destructive lifestyle are honest and real, but extremely vivid, and are actions to avoid in one’s own life. There is always help outside of turning to damaging behavior, you just have to ask.
That being said, going on a three month, excruciatingly difficult, mountainous hike might not be the best choice for everyone either. And I think Strayed makes that point. For her, the decision to hike her way to healing was literal, but for most, that is a figurative, psychological choice. The act of finding a path forward, of marching toward a solution rather than conceding defeat. On the PCT, she met people of all different challenges and circumstances. Some were in groups, some, like her, were travelling solo. She did her best to accept the good in the people she met and leave the bad at the last campsite. Being alone with only your own two hands and two feet is a test of character no matter if you call home a tent in the wilderness or a mansion. And Cheryl’s ultimate goal was to get right with herself. To have only one person to rely upon and still be fulfilled. And she struggled. Self-doubt plagued her mind from day one through the final stretch. But she never let it stop her. She kept on.
She tells some harrowing tales of survival, reveals some heart-breaking truths about her family (or lack thereof), and manages to still get a little hanky panky into the mix. Not my style, but hey, whatever floats your boat, sister. One of my favorite aspects of this book are the questions she poses to herself for contemplation and then indirectly poses to the reader. Naturally, without any power, she had to rely on her brain for entertainment and with so much time for pure thought, she works through a vast amount of personal turmoil.
Who am I?
Where do I belong?
What do I want out of life?
Taking control of your own life is the most liberating and uplifting act you can assert.Questions we all ask ourselves. And the PCT didn’t necessarily provide her with answers, but it gave her the ability to accept herself in every season of her life and know that she and she alone has the power and the right to seek out those answers. As do we all, when we find the courage to state that as an undeniable truth to ourselves and our loved ones. Asking for sound advice is paramount. But allowing others to make life decisions for you? Mehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Nope. Thanks for playing, better luck next time.
Which brings me to the fifth and final section of ‘Wild’. At this point, she had hiked, camped, screamed, cried, laughed, sexed, and thirsted her way through hundreds of miles of wilderness. She’d learned many a lesson and was staring straight at the precipice of discovery, acceptance, and confidence. She was still mourning her mother and the demise of her marriage but she was dealing with it as she and her battered feet trudged onward. A far cry from using heroin to drown her sorrows. She was about to cross into Oregon, leaving California behind. From the Mojave Desert to Portland, that was her trajectory. And crossing into Oregon was a massive victory. In California, she’d conquered obstacles, encountered questionable people, and made some genuine friends. She’d figured out a way to get from one place to another with her gargantuan pack, most affectionately named Monster, and the boots permanently attached to her ankles. She was emotional. She was reflective. But best of all, she was free. Free to feel all of the things. Feel them without judgment OR affirmation. Free of anyone’s opinion but her own.
Cheryl begins every section with a quote or two that end up being perfectly pertinent to the events that unfold. And the final quote prefacing part five hit me the hardest.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver, “The Summer’s Day”
That’s a, uh, good question there Mary.
Was IS it I plan to do?
Hey Queen Freaky-Outy. Relax. Keep reading.
I did keep reading. And I couldn’t help but keep harping back to that question. Am I making my absolute best effort to do something meaningful FOR ME? Sometimes. But I’m a human. Surprise! I don’t have all the answers. But just like Cheryl, I know I have the power and the right to decide what that quote means to me. And at this point in MY life, I’m taking the right steps to do what I love and learn something in the process. Like writing this blog. It’s a step. And no one gets anywhere in one step. Just ask a PCT hiker.
I won’t ruin the ending for you but she obviously wrote a NYT #1 Bestseller. So. Not too shabby. I think the clarity, confidence, and freeze dried food paid off. My one critique is that the end feels rather abrupt. She glazes over a significant portion of final mileage. Certain revelations or conclusions seemed unceremoniously thrown in at the end because she needed to say them. If she could edit, I would ask for 20 more pages. But alas, here we are. And ultimately, this book left me fulfilled, motivated, and astonished by her adversity in the face of hardship. It takes a strong person to own up to their poor choices and consciously decide to be better. And I have endless respect for that.
What are YOU going to do with your one wild and precious life?
Or better yet, what are you DOING?
Let’s talk about it.
Status: Recommended! I do think it is most appropriate for those 18+, though. Limited adult material and language.
Other novels based on self-discovery by way of adventure:
Without Reservations- The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach
Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (HIGHLY recommend reading the book if you’ve only seen the movie)
Now last but certainly not least, you’re probably wondering about the title of this column. Members of House GlaDOS and House Organa will totally know where it originates (and if you don’t SHAME ON YOU) but dear sweet nectar of life, you House Granger gals weren’t even born yet. In the movie Jurassic Park, Samuel L. Jackson’s character is trying to get the power back up to the T-Rex electric fences and right before he hits the button he says ‘Hold on to your Butts’. I find it hilarious and generally just applicable to everything. Got a flat tire? Hold on to your butts! Parents about to rail you for a bad report card? Hold on to your butts! About to start a job search? Hold on to your butts! See? Works every time.
So, y’all? Do me a favor until next time and…