Toward the end of Cheryl Strayed's memoir, "Wild," the author, who is in the middle of hiking 1,100 miles alone across the West Coast's formidable Pacific Crest Trail, loses one of her hiking boots. She stands at the edge of a precipice and gasps. But the moment has passed and the shoe is gone.
"The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding," she writes. "It would take whatever it wanted and never give it back. I really did have only one boot."
This line about the universe could be the catchphrase for the book itself, which pivots with unflinching honesty around the author's loss of her mother to lung cancer when Strayed was 22. This crushing blow leaves Strayed unmoored as her family splinters apart without its matriarch. Soon Strayed's marriage collapses and she begins to experiment dangerously with heroin and casual sex.
Her devastation becomes so acute that the fierce 26-year-old makes the decision to launch herself out of her home in Minnesota and into a three-month journey so physically and emotionally taxing that it's a wonder she emerges from it at all.
But she does, and she emerges stronger — healed — and finally willing to forgive herself for her mistakes. Strayed, who is now in her early 40s, catalogs her epic hike from the Mojave Desert to the Bridge of the Gods, which connects the borders of Oregon and Washington state, with a raw emotional power that makes the book difficult to put down.
She has been writing for years, but has only one other book to her name — a novel titled "Torch" — and a forthcoming collection of her popular and frank "Dear Sugar" advice columns for TheRumpus.net called "Tiny Beautiful Things." As such, the potent literary voice she exhibits in "Wild" comes as a bit of a surprise. Who is Cheryl Strayed, and where has she been keeping herself?
In Portland, Ore., is the easy answer. With a filmmaking husband and two children. But how she got there is at the heart of "Wild." She literally walked there more than 15 years ago, with nothing to call her own except a creaky backpack she named Monster that weighed half as much as she did. Her feet blistered painfully, she lost six toenails and developed palm-sized calluses on her hip bones that resembled a cross between "tree bark and a plucked dead chicken."
The year is 1995 and the Internet is in its infancy. She has no credit card tucked in her back pocket, no cellphone with a built-in GPS, no way of contacting the outside world except through the occasional post office to which her resupply boxes have been sent, each containing dried food, a new book and a single $20 bill meant to last her hundreds of miles until she reached the next sign of civilization.
She avoids feeling fear by telling herself that she is not afraid. Although bears, rattlesnakes, a fox and a couple of sketchy hunters with Bowie knives do scare her. But in reality, it's what's inside of her that she is trying to outrun — the raw edges of her pain and loss. And it's those very things that she must learn to come to terms with as she faces each day with nothing but her inner voice stuck on repeat and thousands of miles in front of her.
She thinks often of her ex-husband Paul. He was good and loving and true and she cheated on him in an almost pathological manner after her mother's death — trying to fill a hole in her heart that would never close.
"I didn't want to hurt for him anymore, to wonder whether in leaving him I'd made a mistake, to torment myself with all the ways I'd wronged him. What if I forgave myself? I thought ... What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I'd done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? ... What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?"
"Wild" is at the height of its power when Strayed confronts her demons with clear-eyed intensity, allowing for the heartbreaking messiness of life to be just that. After all, the universe takes her mother with lung cancer even though she never smoked, and it takes her on the one night that Strayed is not by her side in the hospital. She is dead when Strayed finally arrives with her brother.
"I howled and howled and howled, rooting my face into her body like an animal. She'd been dead an hour. Her limbs had cooled, but her belly was still an island of warm. I pressed my face into the warmth and howled some more," she writes.
After her mother's death she has nightmares and wakes screaming. Night after night, Paul puts wet washcloths over her face to soothe her, but they don't ease the pain.
"Nothing did, Nothing would. Nothing could ever bring my mother back or make it okay that she was gone. Nothing would put me beside her the moment she died."
In walking, and finally, years later, in writing, Strayed finds her way again. And her path is as dazzlingly beautiful as it is tragic.