When Cheryl Strayed decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, she knew the journey would be difficult.
“It was humblingly hard,” said Strayed, who appeared before a capacity crowd at the Hilton on April 2 as part of the Colorado State University Creative Writing Series. The author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail didn’t see another person during the first eight days.
It didn’t help that she crammed her backpack, nicknamed “Monster,” with too many gadgets. “Who can resist a thing that folds into itself?” she asked the audience. “A cheese plate? Sure.”
So it’s no surprise the most famous scene in the book is comical; the author describes packing Monster and trying to lift it the day before the trip. The backpack doesn’t budge. (Reese Witherspoon, who starred in and produced the Academy Award-nominated film based on Wild, captures the author’s frustration perfectly.)
“Turning life into literature, turning my story into the human story – I didn’t quite know how to do it until I wrote that scene,” Strayed said. “Emotionally, it’s the core scene in the book.”
Strayed’s mother died of cancer at age 45, pushing Strayed into a period of intense grief. At the time she thought, “I really don’t think I can live without my mom. I thought I was the only one who felt that way.”
“She was the hero of my life.”
The author, who grew up in rural Minnesota, wanted to be a writer early on, but didn’t think it was possible. “I didn’t know that somebody like me could be a writer.” She applied to one college and was accepted, and the college offered her a deal: a family member could attend, too, at no additional cost.
“My mom said, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to college.’ ” Strayed’s reaction was immediate and visceral: “No fucking way.”
But they did attend college together, and Strayed changed her mind upon seeing the effect college had on her mother: “My mom realized she was smart.”
Her mother died on the Monday of spring break during their senior year. “It took me years to stop being surprised that happened,” Strayed said, describing her state of mind as “functioning but sad” in the four years between her mom’s death and the start of her PCT trek.
She hiked more than 1,000 miles on the 2,650-mile trail that extends from Mexico to Canada. Afterward, she pursued writing again, fell in love, got married and had kids, and now, at 46, charms audiences around the U.S. with a mix of humor, wisdom, and humility.
At the end of her presentation, she took questions from the audience about writing (“Writing is so much trial and error…I have to write to find what I have to say”) and listened to a few people describe how Wild gave them hope during their own tough times. Make “friends to whom you don’t have to explain yourself,” Strayed advised. “Find your tribe. That’s how you get through.”
It was fitting that Strayed read the scene in Wild in which she packs and tries to lift Monster, and begins to learn the lesson that is a metaphor for overcoming life’s difficulties: “I can’t lift the pack. I have to lift the pack.”
The scene ends on a hopeful note as she begins her journey: “…so I opened the door and stepped into the light.”
Watch for Part 2 tomorrow, when I share details about Strayed’s experience writing the now-famous advice column “Dear Sugar” on TheRumpus.com, and her answers to questions about writing memoir and fiction, and dealing with rejection from agents.
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