Author recalls spur for Pacific Crest Trail hike

‘Wild’ author Cheryl Strayed talks to her fans about her memoir, the experiences that shaped it, and the literature world at large

Dubai: When Cheryl Strayed decided to take the impulsive decision of walking the 1,000-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on her own, she did not imagine her story would be number seven on the New York bestseller list five days after it was published, she told a room packed with fans at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Friday evening.


In the summer of 1995, aged 26, Strayed decided to take off backpacking across the American wilderness after experiencing a loss in her family, out of what she described “a place of desperation.”

“I had many difficult things happen to me and I was suffering, and I turned that pain inwards and did a lot of destructive things and made bad decisions. I reached a moment in my life where I woke up and realised I had lost my way,” said the author of ‘Wild.’

Realising that she had to pull herself out of this “hole,” Strayed sought to remind herself of the strength she knew she possessed.

“I knew innately that wild places did that, and I knew innately that doing something physically challenging would do that, and so I found my way to the trail, and it gave me everything I hoped for and expected,” she said.

Describing her experience on the trail as one that gave her a sense of “sacred wholeness” and “solitude,” she said it also showed her she was capable of taking on the challenge, which in some way “ensured psychological healing.”

“The PCT gave me the sense that literally I am walking a trail and the only way to succeed when you walk a trail is to take one step at a time,” said Strayed.

She had not really reflected upon her hike, until she was writing her book ‘Wild,’ she added.

“I felt like I hiked the PCT three times, once when I did it, and once when I went back and wrote the book and I had to think so deeply about what I did and why I did it and what it meant, and then the third was in the experience of talking to so many people about it across so many cultures and continents,” said Strayed.

She described her decision to walk the trail in a time before technology was widely used, as “fulfilling an ancient desire,” pointing out that people often turn to such experiences when dealing with a loss or in need of growth.

“I realised when I was writing this book what I have done for myself when I decided to walk the PCT, is created a rite of passage in a culture that doesn’t do that anymore. I think people are hungry for that across all cultures and all times,” she said.

Referring to how her family reacted after reading her book, she said her siblings have been supportive throughout the process.

“If you write a memoir, you have to write about the mother you have and the father you have and the siblings you have, and you have to be as honest as possible… and you have to do that without violating people’s privacies and hurting their feelings,” she said.

The author, who gave herself the surname ‘Strayed,’ said she strongly believed “that honesty is not a contradiction of kindness”.

Discussing the literature world, Strayed said people often turn to literature because they want to see “the human heart,” and themselves reflected in the stories of others, whether in fictional characters or real characters.

“A part of what’s happening with each literary generation is we try and go further in how much do we dare to say and what stories do we dare to tell… and we realise that vulnerability is strength not weakness,” she said referring to several current movements taking place such as the feminist movement, the questioning of gender roles and the change in approaching psychology.

Strayed pointed out that the conversation about good and evil in literature has changed with more people shifting to the grey areas.

“Many writers are writing in the grey — to say I am going to show you who I am and I am going to write some positive things about myself and some negative things about myself and I can trust that you can see me in all of my humanity because I know I can see you in yours — and that’s what I wanted to do in Wild,” she said.

Having always been ambitious about her writing career, Strayed become a serious writer at the age 19, pointing out she had a “solid identity as a writer.”

“The success didn’t imbalance me artistically, personally or professionally,” she said when asked about how she handled her fame.

The American author, whose memoir ‘Wild’ was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, told her fans she is currently working on her next memoir and co-writing another book with her husband.

Strayed is also the author of popular titles such as the inspiring collection of quotes ‘Brave Enough,’ the novel ‘Torch’ and her latest book ‘Tiny Beautiful Things.’

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