Wild [Book Review….well, kind of]

I love backpacking. And that’s why I’m having surgery next month to get rid of that stupid plate on my right clavicle. I spent a week (5 nights) in Shenandoah backpacking, and almost every step irritated that obvious obstruction on my skin-tight shoulder. If I want to extend my future backpacking vacations without the pain, it has to go.

In addition, I’ve been wanting to read two well-known books on long-distance backpacking. The first is A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. He’s the same author of A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is a completely different book altogether that I reviewed around a year ago (which brings me back to good memories of road trips across the American West). While that book takes place on the Appalachian Trail, the other book takes place on the other side of the United States. This book is titled Wild.

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Yes…..that’s a Mountain. They make great bookmarks and good conversational starters on airplanes.

Wild is a true story about the author and what brought her into the world of long-distance backpacking and her encounters along that journey. My interests initially laid in learning more about some of the technical aspects of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), including mail orders, route hazards, and hitchhiking insights, but there’s a fair bit more emotional insight that I wasn’t expecting in the novel. Cheryl Strayed, the author, grew up in a very atypical lifestyle. Living paycheck to paycheck, even as a child. Growing up in the neck of the woods with no power. But the strongest aspect was the lack of a close-knit family during the beginning of the story. After her mom dies from cancer during Cheryl’s early 20’s, she finds her life falling apart socially …. and almost mentally in a way. What made life beautiful and worth living, at least in the way she previously did, was no longer there.

Note: While I do feel compassion for Cheryl’s unfortunate unraveling as her stepfather and siblings slowly distanced themselves from her, I cannot truly understand her reasoning to crush her amazing, and almost self-sacrificing, husband for adultery and  hard drugs. It’s like if she couldn’t have half of a family, she would rather have none at all. Personally, my only real deep desire in life is to have that single companion, one that you can truly experience life with and where nothing else matters. I think that’s the most hurtful part….. when someone gives up the one thing I dream of but my six digit salary could never buy. And still, I can’t ignore the strong similarities that Paul and Cheryl had between themselves during their divorce that I experienced from my divorce with Kristina over three years ago.

But I cannot judge individuals based on their actions, because I am not them. And I will never be able to truly understand what she went through (considering that I have been blessed with a lot more in life). And in a way, the strong variations in individuals is what makes the human race …..beautiful. You can see such variations in nature and appreciate it just the way it is ….  without judgement or prior expectations. How the rocks shift over time, the various shapes of greenery adapt to their local climates, and the instinctive nature of wildlife behave in search of food, safety, and survival.

Sometimes it just takes a long absence from your daily comforts to truly appreciate what you have…….

And for some, it involves hiking over 1,000 miles at a rate of 15-20 miles/day to hit that reset button in your life. Not to learn how to “undo” what has been done, but to come to peace with the present and “efficiently” (or maybe “peacefully” is the better word here) move on. Cheryl found that in the PCT, along her marked route below.

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Her journey starts in the south near Mojave. The routes are tough, the distance between water sources are scarce, and the climate varies a lot due to the elevation changes. Cheryl has ran into bears, a bull, a llama, numerous rattlesnakes, and other (sometimes unidentifiable) animals. But none of that was life-threatening. Beside the couple scenarios where water was scarce, it’s funny to think that the most hazardous objects Cheryl ran into were other humans. While most are nice, there are still the few encounters where you can’t tell what the others’ intentions were …… especially when you hike alone ….. away from the “safety” of civilization.

Otherwise, most people do treat you with respect. Well, at least when you are a single, attractive woman. There are your supportive fellow backpackers, trail angels, empathetic locals that give you hospitality and meals, and the single sexual affair half-way through Oregon. Hence, her trail name being “The Queen of the PCT.” Because (just about) everyone wants to give her something…..

When doing long distance hiking, there’s a break-in period of 1-2 weeks. It’s not just the physical endurance of toughing up your feet and calves (which Cheryl never really recovered from during her hike). There is also an emotional shift. It takes time to no longer being perturbed to every unplaced sound at night. In addition, there may be a shift from loathing the social isolation to embracing the feeling of being alone.  I’ve noticed that I enjoy the feeling of only having to worry about two things during my backpacking trips: 1) where I would be sleeping and 2) how am I going to be getting there. No social obligations or media distractions. No mental dependence on other’s acceptance of my presence or opinions. It’s easier to build a sense of self-awareness and personal worth that way.

Otherwise, there’s a decent amount of planning required before adventuring out. Packing multiple boxes of food, spare clothing, seasonal tools, and spare cash being one the main requirements. And don’t forget to look at the long-term weather forecast…..so you don’t end up skipping the most beautiful part of the trail system!

Duly noted!

 

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