I have studiously avoided Wild since it became the book du jour when Oprah picked it for her re-imagined book club. I knew the back story--when the author was 22, her mother died and Strayed fell apart. Her siblings and stepfather weren't available to her in the way that she needed them, she cheated on her husband and set their marriage on the road to divorce, and she dabbled with drugs. She decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone to heal herself. Being over-judgmental, although I sympathized with Strayed, I also thought she sounded like a bit of a dope.
But then Novel Conversations chose to read Wild, so I jumped in. And, quite honestly, I continued to think that Strayed was a bit of a dope. Although she believed she was preparing for the trek by haunting REI, she didn't take training hikes and she had never lifted her pack until she was ready to start the hike. Really?? Who would do that?
On the other hand, she is a good writer. She describes the physical experience of hiking 1,000 miles in agonizing detail and the physical setting with counterbalancing beauty. She doesn't flinch when she lays out her many mistakes, and she fearlessly explores her psychological issues. All of this I appreciated, though I never did truly understand how the hike helped her heal the wounds of her childhood and loss of her mother. I get that it was an amazing achievement that gave her a new sense of her own competence, and maybe that was all that was needed. But she hints at something else without describing it in a way I can grasp.
It hadn't occurred to me that my mother would die. Until she was dying, the thought had never entered my mind. She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life. She would grow old and still work in the garden. This image was fixed in my mind, like one of the stories from her childhood that I'd made her explain so intricately that I remembered it as if it were mine. She would be old and beautiful like the black-and-white photo of Georgia O'Keeffe I'd once sent her.
Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control . . .
I opened the book and paged through it, leaning forward so I could see the words by the firelight. I read a line or two from a dozen or so of the poems, each of them so familiar they gave me a strange sort of comfort. I'd chanted those lines silently through the days while I hiked. Often, I didn't know exactly what they meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands--so close and present and belonging to me--until I reached for it and it flashed away.