My 1,000-mile walk back to happiness: How author Cheryl Strayed got her life back after the death of her mother and subsequent drug addiction
Memoir: Cheryl has written a book about her three-month, 1,100-mile solo hike
A few days before I am due to meet
the author Cheryl Strayed, we email to arrange a suitable rendezvous in
New York City. ‘It would be great if it were walking distance from my
hotel,’ Cheryl writes, before adding wryly, ‘and yes, I know “walking
distance” is relative, given the subject
of my book.’
memoir, Wild: a Journey From Lost to Found, is the story of her
three-month, 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT),
from the Mojave Desert in Nevada, through California and Oregon to
At just 26 and a first-time hiker, she walked the
arduous trail largely alone, blistered and bruised, hungry, dirty and
exhausted, wearing the same set of clothes for weeks, and frugally eking
out a few dollars for food.
18 years later, her impressive mental and physical fortitude has been
richly rewarded. Wild is a New York Times number-one bestseller in the
US, was the volume with which Oprah Winfrey chose to relaunch her
unfeasibly influential book club, and it’s about to be published in the
The actress Reese Witherspoon read the manuscript and bought the
film rights before it was even published; she will also play Cheryl in
the screen adaptation, which is currently being penned by British author
Nick Hornby. ‘It’s flattering, she’s much prettier than me,’ says
Cheryl, a thoughtful, considered and (whatever she says) attractive
But Wild is far more than simply the
travelogue of Cheryl’s ambitious undertaking, and the heat, the hunger,
the snakes, bears and colourful characters she encountered along the
PCT. It’s also the incredibly honest and deeply moving account of how,
at 22, she suddenly lost her mother to cancer, then lost herself in
grief – destroying her own early marriage and dabbling in drugs – before
finally piecing herself back together in the wilderness of Western USA.
‘In any personal
transformation, whether it’s going to Alcoholics Anonymous or any other
form of recovery, people talk about surrender and acceptance,’ says
Cheryl, now 44, happily married again
and a mother of two living in
Portland, Oregon. ‘I think that the hike, with all its challenges,
taught me something about accepting the world without my mum, and
accepting the mistakes that I had made and the regrets that I had;
accepting them and surrendering.’
Today, Cheryl is a celebrated figure on
the American literary scene, and we meet in the ritzy restaurant of a
hotel off Central Park. It’s all a world away from her early life in
Spangler, Pennsylvania, where Cheryl’s mother Barbara, known as Bobbi,
the army child of Catholic parents, married her father at just 19,
already pregnant with Cheryl’s older sister Karen.
Cheryl (pictured left as a child) was distraught after her mother (also pictured) died. As a result, her marriage broke up and she started using drugs
On the trail: At just 26 and a first-time hiker, Cheryl (pictured in 1995) walked the trail largely alone, blistered and bruised, hungry, dirty and exhausted.
The marriage was turbulent and
violent from the start, and by the time Karen was nine, Cheryl six, and
their brother Leif just two, their father left for good – not that he
was much missed. ‘When he had been present, he was abusive and
tyrannical,’ Cheryl says matter-of-factly. ‘From a really young age,
there was always a paradox for me: my mum was my hero, but I was
determined that I was not going to replicate her life.’
Cheryl was 13, Bobbi married Eddie, a kind and capable carpenter, and
the family moved to rural Minnesota, to a 40-acre plot of land where
they fashioned a rustic house out of scrap wood. There was no
electricity, no running water, no phone nor indoor bathroom, and yet,
Cheryl enthuses, ‘Those years living in the wilderness were the happy
years of my childhood.’ She admits they were probably also partly why
the prospect of hiking the PCT didn’t faze her too much.
And in spite of her avowed intent never to repeat her mother’s patterns, Cheryl got married at
19, too, to her college boyfriend, ‘a good man named Paul. We were
doing it to rebel; we were going to have this radical feminist
marriage,’ she laughs at the memory.
For several years, the family’s
fortunes had seemed on the up: Cheryl was at university and so was
Bobbi, who had enrolled at the same time, determined to get her own
degree. ‘She was just getting to be the person she wanted to be, finally
achieving her goals,’ says Cheryl.
mother and daughter were in their final year of study when they learned
that Bobbi – an otherwise healthy vegetarian non-smoker – had lung
cancer. Though the family was initially told she would live for a year,
Bobbi died only 49 days after her diagnosis, aged 45.
aftermath of her mother’s death was a maelstrom of pain and grief –
Cheryl writes of how she howled uncontrollably for days, then dreamed of
her mother incessantly and woke up screaming, night after night.
Picture perfect: A view of Mount Hood on the Pacific Coast Trail. The journey is challenging for even the most proficient of hikers
perhaps more painfully, without her mother binding them together, the
fragile family unit of her stepfather Eddie and her siblings Karen and
Leif also came unstuck and disintegrated. ‘My siblings weren’t capable
of showing their emotions,’ she says simply. ‘I don’t
know why we
have different coping skills, but I don’t shrink from situations. And as
hard as it is to accept, deep grief will teach you that you cannot
force people to be anything other than who they are,’ says Cheryl.
/12/29/article-2249488-15EB863F000005DC-397_634x420.jpg” width=”634″ height=”420″ alt=”Beloved: Cheryl's late mother Bobbi, pictured aged 40, died of lung cancer only 49 days after her diagnosis” class=”blkBorder” />
Beloved: Cheryl's late mother Bobbi, pictured aged 40, died of lung cancer only 49 days after her diagnosis
I wonder if that period of
her life was difficult to own up to, given that her own children may
well one day read her book. ‘Yes, I think there will be scenes that they
will come to and perhaps won’t want to read,’ she says. ‘But I actually
think they are lucky. Wouldn’t you be curious to know what your
parents’ lives were like when they were in their 20s My children will
know first-hand who I was before they came along.’
This is, of course, an extremely pertinent point for Cheryl. ‘I only had a short amount of time to ask my mother all of that. She did share a lot with me, very openly, but I wish I could have asked her so many more things.’
The turning point in Cheryl’s downward spiral came when she found out that she was pregnant with Joe’s baby. ‘I thought, “OK, I am getting divorced, my family is falling apart, I feel lost, and now I am pregnant, and I can’t have the baby – I have to have an abortion.”’
She shakes her head. ‘At that moment, when I really did hit rock bottom, I realised that the real dishonour to my mother would be not to thrive,’ she says. ‘The dishonour would be not to go on,
not to have a good and happy life.’
So, while her decision, at 26, to hike the wild and difficult terrain of the PCT alone might have seemed spontaneous, it was also, in some ways, premeditated, she believes. ‘There were all
these difficult things happening in my life.
Family: Cheryl with her husband Brian, daughter Bobbi and son Carver
And I decided that I had to do something. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I had to get myself together,’ she says. ‘And then when I found a book about the PCT, I thought, “This is it, this is the thing that I am supposed to do.”’
The arduous journey, challenging for even the most proficient of hikers – let alone a single female with no previous experience and an unwieldy rucksack – brought Cheryl into the path of danger, from the heat, cold and terrain.
But it also brought her tremendous joy, from the breathtaking physical beauty of the environment, from her own unexpected achievement, from sharing experiences with like-minded strangers, and from receiving kindnesses and hospitality.
Cheryl has relived her hiking experiences in more recent times
Her three-month trek concluded, she returned to Portland where, nine days later, she met 34-year-old Brian Lindstrom, a documentary filmmaker and the man who would become her second husband. The timing was significant.
‘The woman who began the hike wasn’t ready for Brian,’ she says. ‘I do think that the hike prepared me for a deeper, bigger relationship.’
Marriage and motherhood have also brought deeper reflections on losing her own mother.
‘I will be motherless for the rest of my life – it doesn’t change,’ she says.
‘I would really love my son and daughter [Carver and Bobbi – named after her late mother – aged ten and seven] to know my mum, but I don’t get to have that, and they don’t get to have that.
‘But I had a great mum for the first 22 years of my life,’ she continues with a smile. ‘Some people’s mums live to be ancient and they are never really there for them. I would take my situation over that any day.’
Next year, Cheryl herself will turn 45. ‘I’ve always thought that for everyone who loses a parent young, reaching the age at which they essentially outlive their parent is very strange,’ she reflects. ‘And I always knew 45 was young – I just did not know how young. Now that I’m here myself, I feel like I only recently became a grown-up. I feel like I am in the prime of my life.’ She isn’t wrong; apart from huge critical and commercial success, the plaudits from Oprah and the forthcoming big-screen adaptation, she recently signed a deal for a further two books – one fiction, one memoir.
But Wild has also brought about positive changes on a more personal level. Cheryl healed the rift with her brother Leif. ‘After he read Wild, we had the most wonderful conversation,’ she nods. ‘He said he was sorry, that he understood how he had failed himself. But by the time he apologised to me, of course, I didn’t need him to apologise. I’d forgiven him a long time ago.’ Her sister Karen, however, is a more thorny subject. ‘My mother’s father died last month and I saw my sister for the first time in about 15 years,’ she reveals. ‘I love her, but we have very different lives.’
For Cheryl, the PCT has become an annual pilgrimage; she hikes a section of the trail each year with Brian and their children. ‘The kids love it, and they know it is “Mum’s thing”,’ she laughs. ‘My husband and I are always worrying that our children are going to come out mollycoddled, because we are giving them all the things that we never had. We try to raise them with good values, but they have a very different life to the one we had growing up. ‘The main thing I want for my children is what my mum wanted for us – to feel loved and be good, kind people. They can become whatever they want to become, but kindness is the most important virtue. And that is what I am carrying forward to them, from my mum.’
Cheryl's walk on the wild side
Pacific Crest Trail
As difficult and maddening as the trail could be, there was hardly a day that passed that didn't offer up some form of what was called 'trail magic' in the PCT vernacular – the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.
There was a deer walking towards me, seemingly unaware of my presence. I made a small sound, so as not to startle her, but instead of bolting away, she stopped and looked at me, before slowly continuing towards me. ‘It’s OK,’ I whispered to the deer, ‘you’re safe in this world.’ When I spoke, it was as if the spell had been broken. The deer lost all interest, though still she didn’t run. She only stepped away, picking through the azaleas with her hooves, nibbling on plants as she went.
I hiked alone for the next few days, up and down and up again, over Etna Summit and into the Marble Mountains on the long hot slog to Seiad Valley, past lakes where I was compelled by mosquitoes to slather myself in insect repellent for the first time on my trip, and into the paths of day hikers who gave me reports about the wildfires that were raging to the west, though still not encroaching on the PCT. I realised I’d passed the midpoint of my hike. I’d been out on the trail for 50 or so days. If all went as planned, in another 50 days I’d be done.
I gazed out over the darkening land. There were so many amazing things in this world. They opened up inside me like a river. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next minute I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn't crying because I was happy. I wasn't crying because I was sad. I wasn't crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full.
California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn't feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn't feel like an Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too.
An edited extract from Wild: a Journey From Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic Books, 12.99) To order a copy for 11.49 with free p&p, contact the YOU Bookshop, tel: 0844 472 4157, you-bookshop.co.uk