I wasn’t sure this book would live up to the hype, but it was exactly what I expected: a story of a journey, an adventure, and personal growth. I know that people reading it for the hiking experience have been disappointed, but that wasn’t what I was looking for.
Most of you have read this already, but the basic story is that Strayed, after losing her mother to cancer and seeing her family and her marriage fall apart, decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT runs all the way along the West Coast of the U.S., from Mexico to Canada. Strayed spends several months putting all her money into gear for the trip – a pack, hiking shoes, and the many types of camping and hiking gear needed to survive a summer in the mountains.
What Strayed does by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is the kind of thing I fantasize about but would never actually do. Of course that’s partially because she’s sort of hit bottom in her personal and family life. I am profoundly grateful that I have enough people that love me that I couldn’t just disappear for three months in the wilderness. But Strayed is mostly on her own, and in a lot of ways, this experience teaches her that she can survive on her own.
What fascinated me about this story is the idea of pushing your body well past what you ever thought it could do. I’ve never done that. I’ve run a little, done a little yoga, but I’m physically not very strong. I do think that by challenging yourself physically, you can make yourself stronger mentally and emotionally. I’ve just never pushed myself that far (and maybe have never had the need to).
I also found myself fascinated by the hiking and the process. For example, Strayed mails boxes with cash and supplies to post offices along the route. She leaves the boxes with a friend with instructions when to send each box and where. She has a pack that weighs more than she does. She realizes pretty early that she’s underprepared, undertrained and underfunded, but she pushes on.
This is one of those books that, if it wasn’t true, wouldn’t mean much. But I was really inspired by the fact that Strayed really did this. Having just read The Confidence Code, I have some idea how much confidence it took for her to set out on the trail alone. Most of us wouldn’t do it, and maybe that’s a good thing. She certainly faces a lot of danger along the trail; from her fellow travelers and from nature itself. I found myself worrying for her constantly.
I had heard that most of this book isn’t about the trail itself, but more about her life and various emotional traumas. I didn’t find that to be the case. While there’s certainly a lot of introspection, I always felt like the story focused on her experience on the trail, and I would have been disappointed otherwise. I liked how she talks about how the hiking clears her mind and frees her to think about her life.
At first I was a little disappointed each time she departs from the trail, as if somehow she’s failing to do what she set out to do. But I came to realize those departures were just as much about experiencing the trail as the hiking.
I was conscious of the fact that Strayed is in her early twenties as she hikes the trail, so she’s willing to take a lot of risks that I wouldn’t take in my forties – and she has a lot less to lose. Still, she never comes off as immature. Yes, she does stupid, risky things, but this is not a story about sex and drugs, it’s really about facing your fears and challenging yourself at the highest level.
If you liked Into the Wild for its ideas about getting away from civilization and material belongings, immersing yourself in nature, and challenging yourself physically and mentally, you’ll find similarities in this book. Although you already know it has a happier ending.