What’s so fascinating about books by people who’ve walked the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail? Well, for starters I’m not the one actually doing the walking although I enjoy hiking; I went on several trips of this type (of markedly shorter duration) in high school. There are a few crucial differences between the trails–one’s on the East Coast and one’s on the West, and one’s 500 miles longer than the other–but in both cases, they involve a LOT of walking, and frankly while the idea of walking any portion of either trail is intriguing, reading about it from the comfort of my own armchair is nice.
Having read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods about attempting the Appalachian Trail and Hawk Greenway’s book about his coming of age trip up the Pacific Crest Trail, The Trail North: A Solo Journey On The Pacific Coast, I couldn’t resist picking up Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail when I saw it at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers’ convention. All three play up a somewhat dispiriting fact about walking the Trails: they’re long. They’re really long. Several hundred people start each trail each year, and about half give up before making more than a few days or a few hundred miles because (surprise surprise, drumroll please), making it from end to end of either trail involves a lot more walking than they were expecting, even if they’ve got full support off-trail and don’t have to carry more than a water bottle and their lunch. Not surprisingly, bringing all that you need with you as you walk is an exhausting proposition, even for those in proper condition.
Unfortunately, Cheryl Strayed didn’t strike me as being ready to walk much of the Pacific Crest Trail and while she managed far more than I’ll ever do now, sure enough she didn’t walk more than a fraction of the trail. She didn’t have enough money. She wasn’t in good enough shape. She had too much stuff at the beginning–though in fairness, starting the walk in the desert means having to take your water with you–and not enough at the end. That’s not a criticism of the book; Bryson didn’t cover much more of the Appalachian Trail and yet that’s one of my favorite books of his. The existence of her book about the experience does rather give away the ending–obviously she did make it back to civilization.
Strayed led a rather bohemian poverty stricken childhood; (euphemistically) her parents separated as a result of her father’s abuse of her mother and their three children, and her mother worked a series of dead end poorly paid jobs to make ends meet (and often had to turn to government aid of various types). Her mother remarried several years later, and the family built a cabin in the woods where Cheryl spent her adolescence. As she and her mother were in their last year of college together, they discovered that her mother had cancer….and mere weeks later, her mother was dead. Without that core, the family fell apart, and with it Cheryl’s own marriage. She packed up what remained and drove west and decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in order to clear her head. She hiked (mostly) from the Mojave Desert to Portland, Oregon, with a detour around the highest (and therefore snowiest) portion of the Sierra Nevada and emerged having lost some physical weight and mental baggage, in much better condition all around than when she started hiking. The decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail wasn’t a whim, strictly speaking, but let’s just say that she didn’t have as many resources as other more comfortable hikers.
While I enjoyed the book, I finished it thinking a combination of “If I ever do such a thing I’m packing half the weight and twice the financial resources I think I’ll need.” and “I wish Strayed well, but will wait to see if she can write another book as good as this.” (Her first book, Torch, nominally fiction, seems to be more than slightly autobiographical, if this second book is any indication.)
A bit of background information for non-hikers or anyone not paying attention to the rest of the country: the Appalachian trail, which runs along most of the East Coast from Georgia to Maine, is the better known of the two though shorter at only 2,181 miles, as there’s a larger population near it and it had a better advertising campaign. The Pacific Crest Trail is pretty much the same thing, except running up the West Coast mountains, from Mexico to Canada, and is about 500 miles longer. For the very dedicated, there’s a third trail, The Continental Divide Trail, which (not surprisingly) runs along the mountain ranges which make up the Continental Divide; it’s yet longer–3,100 miles–but isn’t quite as complete as the other two trails.