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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Escape into the “Wild”

Published: August 23, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

One of the best parts about summer vacation is the freedom to slip into stories that aren’t your own. As you turn the pages to meet new protagonists, everyday worries seem to fade away. With the first sip of green tea in your favorite coffee shop at the end of a workday, the specters of unfulfilled major requirements disappear.

This summer, Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” took me away from the sweltering furnace that is Washington D.C. in July. In “Wild,” Strayed recalls her journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The PCT is a long-distance hiking trail running along the U.S. border with Mexico to the Canadian border along the edge of Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada. The trail covers California, Oregon, and Washington and runs for 2,650 miles.

In 1994, at the age of 26, Strayed set out to hike the PCT after her mother’s death and her own divorce. Emotionally spent, she wanted to challenge herself physically and emotionally by means of independent thinking. Her ultimate goal was to carve out a new life for herself on the other end of the trail, yet Strayed began the hike having done only minimal research and was almost immediately blindsided by the realities of the trail. To start, she overpacked her backpack—nicknamed “Monster”—which put her at a physical disadvantage since the first mile.

Strayed’s scramble, as she descended mountains, climbed hills, set up campsites and confronted the wear and tear on her body, taught her to focus on the elemental needs that keep us going: food, water, shelter and human companionship.

She was so thoroughly alone that each period of social interaction, no matter how brief, was heightened in importance. The hikers she met, all of whom were characters, shared their stories and their supplies. Many were shocked that she was hiking alone as a young woman. In turn, she recognized that she was treated differently from male hikers.

No matter who tells it, a story like this is one of survival against the odds, and Strayed’s is no exception. We root for her to take each step, despite the pain, the cold, the heat, the broken equipment and the fear. At times, given her determination to be completely independent, I found her emotional dependence on other people frustrating. But that is an easy criticism from the vantage point of a Starbucks in Georgetown. I’m currently researching hiking boots and planning some fall hikes. Blue Hills, anyone?