You probably don’t live in a cave, which means you’re aware of the runaway success of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. At age 26, Strayed (a surname she chose to indicate her status) illogically, and with little preparation, chose to hike the 1,100-mile Pacific Coast Trail solo. I say “illogically” because of the dangers and pitfalls inherent in such an undertaking, not that Strayed had no good reason for her quest. She did: She was mourning the loss of her mother, grieving the end of her marriage and psychologically at the end of her tether.
All of which is big fodder for big adventure. But what sets Wild apart from other memoirs of self-seeking treks is Strayed’s assured, calm voice — perhaps a clue as to why it took her so long (17 years) to write about the experience. The author knows she survived and also knows she learned a great deal, and she is able to prop up the reader through otherwise terrifying events involving bears, hanging by a branch and strange men in a truck.
Which doesn’t mean those events have no impact — oh, they do. It’s wrenching to watch Strayed eke out an existence on the small amount of money she has sent ahead to herself in packages that arrive at trailhead depots. Her delight in the single bottles of Snapple lemonade she can buy at these places will have you rushing to your corner convenience store, ready to quaff a case; her disappointment when she has nothing left for a cheeseburger will make you weep.
But overall, it’s Strayed’s determination to find her way that stays with you. She does things she has no business doing, like hoisting a too-heavy pack nicknamed “Monster” and crafting sandals from duct tape — yet she lives to tell the tale. She wants to live to tell the tale, and readers root for her every painful step of the way. (P.S.: There’s a movie of this memoir in the works, which is due out this December starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed.)
In stark contrast is my Backlist title: Jon Krakauer’s mesmerizing 1996 Into the Wild, which was also made into a movie in 2007, directed by Sean Penn.). It’s the story of a young man named Christopher McCandless who wanted a big change in his life. After graduating from Emory University, he gave away all of his money, cut off communication with his family and headed west, changing his name to Alexander Supertramp. He made it to the Stampede Trail in Alaska and then went off trail alone with little more than a 10-pound bag of rice and a shotgun.
There is so much that could be said about how McCandless might have died; while many people thought he confused two native plants, Krakauer gathered more research and in 2013 published a long New Yorker magazine blog piece about how McCandless probably ate the edible plant — but his adolescent male metabolism, combined with his nearly all-game winter diet, would have made the wild potato and the wild sweet pea toxic to him.
Krakauer is a literary journalist nonpareil, and reading this book is an intense experience. However, it is also a sad one. Many critics and reviewers over the years have speculated that McCandless was on a suicide mission. It’s impossible to say from his diary entries, although they do indicate he was starving and desperately ill.
What might be more interesting to note is that Strayed and McCandless were both born in 1968, and both set out on their journeys in the early 1990s. One was lost. One was found. Things might have turned out differently in both cases. But one thing is certain: While the natural world inspired both Cheryl Strayed and Christopher McCandless, it also challenged them. These aren’t books for the faint of heart or for those who think of “nature” as bouquets of wildflowers on a sun-warmed porch. They’re books about the limits of human endurance, physical, psychological, and spiritual.