At age 26, Cheryl Strayed was lost. She was reeling from her mother’s death, her family was scattered, her marriage destroyed, and recreational drug use was her escape. These events led Strayed to impulsively embark on a rigorous hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon/Washington border alone — with no prior training or conditioning.
Years later, the now-49-year-old Portland resident and mother of two finds herself recounting the journey often due to the success of her memoir — Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail — that chronicles her journey. Oh, and there’s the motion picture adaptation in which A-list actress Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed. Strayed was in Bellevue on March 21 as the keynote speaker for the Youth Eastside Services (YES) annual Invest in Youth breakfast. We caught up with her before the show to talk about addiction, writing, and all things Wild.
425: What led you to partner with YES for this event?
Strayed: YES invited me to come; I think they probably knew that there was a resonance between some of the experiences and struggles I’ve had, that really intersect with the journeys, struggles, and lives of the people that they serve.
425: What did you hope to inspire with your speech?
Strayed: I hoped to provide that bigger-picture view of what struggle can look like 20 or 30 years out. So many people that YES serves have really reached that rock-bottom moment of their lives, whether it be suffering from emotional or mental issues, or drug and alcohol issues … Often, it is from that place that you find your greatest strength. You find your greatest capacity to transform your life.
425: In your book Wild, you share some issues surrounding drugs and other issues. Did you seek out an organization like YES for help?
Strayed: I didn’t use the (type of) services that YES offers to the community; I just didn’t have access to that. I found my way to wellness via (the trail), but I still think there’s a whole lot of resonance between the journeys the clients they serve have to take as they walk toward healing and wellness.
425: Would you say that you healed and rediscovered yourself on the PCT?
Strayed: We always continue to grow throughout our lives and evolve if we are doing life right. Having said that, I do think there are times in our lives where that growth is accelerated. And certainly my experience on the PCT was one of those times. Not only was I grieving (the loss of my mother) and suffering, but also I had gone down the wrong path and done some self-destructive things that were not good for me. I realized the only person who was going to set me on the right path was myself. That’s true no matter who you are or what your life story is: You have to ultimately make decisions about your life in the direction of the light. My hike on the PCT was a huge awakening era of my life. I think of it as one of those doorways that I passed through and stepped out the other side as a changed person, a wiser person, and a stronger person.
425: You ended your journey just before the Oregon/Washington border. Do you regret not doing the Washington section of the PCT?
Strayed: The reason I didn’t hike the whole trail is that I didn’t have enough money to fund the hike. It takes about five and a half months to hike the whole trail, and I had enough money to hike for about three months, so that is what I did. I finished the trail, and I had 20 cents. I don’t mean that in a (metaphoric) way. Literally, I had 20 cents … I would love to hike the Washington section of the PCT, and I plan to do it with my kids someday, and my husband.
425: When you sat down to write Wild, were you in any way cognizant of what it could become?
Strayed: No. I would have to be an insane person to sitting there thinking that everyone was going to love this. That it was going to be a block buster best seller and Reese Witherspoon is going to star in the movie. I know you can have those fantasies sometimes, but I was a real seasoned writer by the time I started writing Wild … I knew the way the literary world was and of course I had gigantic ambition to write the very best book I could possibly write. I gave it everything. I was artistically rigorous, I was emotionally raw and vulnerable, I was fearless when it came trying to tell as true as a story as I possibly could about this experience. Really searching my soul. Then I put it into the world and hoped for the best.
425: Wild really resonated around the world and across so many divides: gender, cultures, races, ages, and generations. Why do you think this is?
Strayed: When people talk to me about Wild, they talk about themselves (because) they see their story in mine. It is really a powerful experience. That is what art is supposed to do, which is connect us (through a) universal thread; we all know what it means to love, to lose, to triumph, to struggle, and to suffer. Those are the connections I was hoping to make — those were my ambitions when I was writing Wild.
425: Why did you wait so many years after your experience on the PCT to write about it?
Strayed: I waited because I didn’t know I was ever going to write about it. It wasn’t like I was hiking and thinking, I’m going to write a book about this someday. I’m a writer, so everything in my life might end up in books someday; I don’t know. I was really focused when I was on the PCT about writing my first book, Torch. After that was published, I had two kids under the age of 2 and I was like, “Oh my God, I am never going to have another moment to write ever again.” Writing the first book almost killed me; there’s no way I was going to write a second book. But (then I thought), I’ll write an essay on my hike on the PCT. I could do, like, 20 pages … But what I wanted to do was tap into that deeper story, and it took some time for me to grasp what that was. I needed to find those universal threads in my story that weren’t just about me, but were about the journeys that we all go on in our lives.
425: Were you then surprised that Amy Sherman-Palladino used your book and story in the recent Gilmore Girls reboot on Netflix?
Strayed: I felt so honored because my kids have observed so many amazing things happen to the book and to me because of the book, but there was something about that that really hit home with my daughter, where she was like, “OK; this is my mom.” All of her friends were like, “Your mom was on Gilmore Girls.” It was a new way in which the book had permeated culture, which was deep and flattering. There is something incredible about this feminist writer who was a trailblazer and made this feminist show, doing homage to me, also a feminist writer, who blazed a different kind of trail.
425: You didn’t know they were doing it?
Strayed: I had no idea. They should have told me, I would have done a cameo or something. Like I could (have been) at the pool like, “Hey, that’s my book!”
425: Speaking of Wild sightings, how often have you been somewhere and seen someone reading your book?
Strayed: I’ve been in so many situations before when I’m on an airplane or somewhere and the person next to me is reading one of my books, it’s always funny.
425: Is it also a little weird?
Strayed: Yeah, it’s totally weird. Sometimes I say something to them.
425: How do you gauge whether to connect or not?
Strayed: I’ve been right next to someone on the plane a couple of times. This one person was just crying, like weeping, and she put the book down because she was just so overwhelmed. I’d peek at the page, it was all I could do not to say, “Just keep reading, it’s going to be funny in like ten pages.” But I also didn’t want to have a four-hour conversation with her about my book because we’re on a plane and we are trapped there together. So I waited until we landed and I said, “Hey that book you are reading, I wrote it.” This has happened a few times now, so on airplanes I usually wait until we land. A couple times I’ll just see people with the book and I’ll say, “I wrote that.” Or my kids will (see someone) and they’ll say, “My mom wrote that book.”
425: What are you reading right now?
Strayed: Best American Travel Writing, it’s an anthology. Every year, they have a guest editor that gets to choose the essays that go into (it) I’m the guest editor this year. It will be out in the fall.
425: Do you have a message for any women who are thinking about hiking the PCT alone like you did?
Strayed: I haven’t hiked long distances on the PCT for the last few years, so I can’t speak to the bro culture firsthand, but I can only say that it doesn’t surprise me. The answer to that is, not to say, “I’m not going to go hike alone,” but actually the opposite. Do more of that. Make that a space where women are showing up and asserting their right to be on that trail.