In her memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed hikes 1,100 miles on the PCT, which runs all the way from Mexico to Canada. She occasionally stumbles upon fellow hikers, but for the most part she travels alone. Strayed was 26 years old at the time, with a backpack dubbed ‘monster’ as her only companion. However, as threatening as the name sounds, ‘monster’ would not have helped her had she been accosted on the PCT. One could ask, what would incite a young woman with very little hiking experience to embark on a five month long expedition equipped with neither cell phone, credit card or assault weapon of any kind? The answer to this question is one of the reasons Strayed’s memoir is so affective. She is not a superhero. She is a woman full of grief over the loss of her mother to cancer. She is a woman whose marriage fell apart and, with divorce imminent, she does not sugarcoat her leading role in its demise. She is an everywoman of sorts. She never claims to be a heroine. Unless you remove the ‘e,’ that word never crosses her mind.
Before reading her story, one would assume that anyone attempting to backpack across a large portion of the west coast would have to be an avid hiker or crazy. Strayed was neither. She could be you. It is this fact that makes reading her memoir such an emotional experience. For the most part, we have all had moments in our lives when we face challenges that seem a little too trying, where the uphill battle we face seems a little too daunting. We have all experienced loss. And in our weakest most human of moments we search for something to give us meaning. Strayed’s search for meaning took her someplace that most of us would never fathom, but after reading her inspirational tale, maybe now we will.
The fact that she did it alone makes this inspiration twofold. Before reading Wild, I felt my most powerful singing feminist power ballads in the shower. Strayed stood at the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, after months of solo travel across terrain that ranged from desert to tundra-like conditions But as empowering as her story is, the question of safety is a lingering one. As much as I admire Strayed’s accomplishment, I wouldn’t make it 100 feet without assessing every possibility for my death and dismemberment a la The Hills Have Eyes or the evening news.
Fear is something that women travelers have been taught to pack in abundance, along with a few pair of warm socks and a canister of pepper spray. But this negative PR is giving solo travel a bad rap. Solo travel can also be a test of strength, an exploration of self and am incredibly worthwhile adventure. Websites such as JourneyWoman now offer advice to solo travelers, complete with personal accounts of women’s experiences.
According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association website, approximately 300 people attempt to hike the entire PCT each year. At 2,650 miles this seems incredible. Strayed covered nearly half. While I am still daunted by the prospect of abandoning deodorant for any significant length of time, Strayed’s story has given me a profound sense of what one can accomplish when the world knocks her down. Not only did Strayed get back up, but she did so with a sizeable ‘monster’ on her back.