Monday, June 17, 2013

The higher purpose of a solo journey

Wild, From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed, published by Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. (2012)

In 1982 (aged 23), I embarked on a solo bike trip through England, France and Spain. What compelled me to take this impulsive adventure I can't say for sure. I was neither an athlete nor a cyclist. I flew from Toronto to London, England, bought a road bike and began my journey. It just seemed like the right thing to do at that time in my life.

Memories of that youthful trip came flooding back to me as I read Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," a non-fiction memoir of her three-month solo hike through the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1995, when she was 26. A solo journey is something many young men and women do for deeply personal reasons; for some it’s a spiritual quest, for others a physical challenge and a test of character. Strayed makes no  bones about the fact that she needed this trip to help her heal from the death of her mother, a recent divorce, a heroin addiction and other demons.

In "Wild," Strayed recounts the highs and lows of her long hike: her brushes with wild animals, encounters with fellow hikers and the daily challenges in keeping herself alive. She writes with tremendous conviction and honesty, and her tone is both humbling and lyrical. I particularly enjoyed her many descriptions of the beauty and majesty of the PCT, including this one:
"It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With that it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way... It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me."
"Wild" moves more or less chronologically from the start of the trip in the Mojave Desert until the end at the Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon-Washington border. But the narration is punctuated by flashbacks from Strayed's past (conversations with friends, family members and acquaintances), which adds depth and poignancy to her tale.

Strayed's PCT hike was undertaken almost on a whim, but as her story progresses, there almost seems to be a higher power at work - guiding her, testing her and protecting her. Throughout her many trials and tribulations, she never loses faith. Readers of any age will feel moved, inspired and elevated by her story.

If you've never experienced an extended solo journey, the idea might seems odd, exotic, or pointless. But for those who have undertaken such a journey, the exercise is far from pointless. For many (including myself), it provides a kind of necessary escape and a rebirth. It offers closure, perspective, adventure, and a reaffirmation of life. 

Some personal journeys are fascinating, educational and entertaining in and of themselves. Others manage to transcend those defined boundaries to become something more resonant and lasting. "Wild" easily falls into the latter category, a life-affirming story that will live in my memory and imagination for years to come, a story that I'm pleased to recommend to anyone who has ever taken (or contemplated) a solo journey.

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