I enjoyed reading Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed. I found the book gritty, ruthlessly honest and inspiring. All that from a book that at first glance is about walking the Pacific Crest Trail. It is, but the book is also about Cheryl’s life to that point.
You can buy the book on Amazon Kindle here – Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail or the movie, here are the links for UK Kindle and the movie.
Walking the Pacific Crest Trail was not a long-held dream that came true; it was more about how to escape from this mess of her life right now. The inspiration to hike was accidental, like many things, it came after noticing a guidebook in an outdoor shop while buying something unrelated. This relates to the Camino, I know many who just heard of the Camino because of the film or friend and got hooked and wanted to go. But yes, there are also others who had the dream for some time.
Cheryl’s mother died young of cancer and this is a thread throughout the book:
“It was the same when I tried to pray. I prayed fervently, rabidly, to God, any god, to a god I could not identify or find. I cursed my mother, who’d not given me any religious education. Resentful of her own repressive Catholic upbringing, she’d avoided church altogether in her adult life, and now she was dying and I didn’t even have God. I prayed to the whole wide universe and hoped that God would be in it, listening to me. I prayed and prayed, and then I faltered. Not because I couldn’t find God, but because suddenly I absolutely did: God was there, I realized, and God had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God was not a granter of wishes. God was a ruthless bitch”
I did say the book was gritty, and when it comes to sharing her personal life she is just as forthright – I doubt I could ever be that open in public.
I find that there are many who walk the Camino because they have reached a point in life where they have had just enough but don’t know what to do about changing. I fall into that category.
“I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods.”
I learned many things during my month on the Camino Frances. Perhaps the most important was that I am not a quitter – for some reason that was one of the beliefs I held about myself.
“Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid. I was working too hard to be afraid.”
Walking and talking with other people everyday let me begin to see some of the fears that dogged my thinking. It was easier to listen to strangers while in Spain, and easier for them to provide insights. I remember clearly on the first day, walking up the hill from St Jean, my head is noisy – I just don’t stop thinking and I had doubts about how helpful and useful that was.
“I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind.”
In many ways, I became like this during the first and second day. My feet were so sore and my body ached from carrying too much in my backpack – it took a week to settle into walking.
“These were the questions I’d held like stones all through the winter and spring, as I prepared to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The ones I’d wept over and wailed over, excavated in excruciating detail in my journal. I’d planned to put them all to rest while hiking the PCT. I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips. And also, during that second week on the trail—when spring was on the very cusp of turning officially to summer—because I was so hot I thought my head would explode.”
I took a new journal with me on the Camino intending to write every day about my thoughts on how I had got to that point in my life. I ended up writing very little and spent more time with other pilgrims.
“I stopped in my tracks when that thought came into my mind, that hiking the PCT was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Immediately, I amended the thought. Watching my mother die and having to live without her, that was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Leaving Paul and destroying our marriage and life as I knew it for the simple and inexplicable reason that I felt I had to—that had been hard as well. But hiking the PCT was hard in a different way. In a way that made the other hardest things the tiniest bit less hard. It was strange but true. And perhaps I’d known it in some way from the very beginning. Perhaps the impulse to purchase the PCT guidebook months before had been a primal grab for a cure, for the thread of my life that had been severed.”
Walking the Camino is the hardest physical thing I have ever done, the one that cured me of the idea that I was a quitter. And I can agree again that the physical and emotional disturbances in life bring different challenges.
“I’d torn off the cover and all the pages I’d read the night before and burned them in the little aluminium pie pan I’d brought to place beneath my stove to safeguard against errant sparks.”
To keep the weight down she burned the pages from her guidebook after she had completed that section. I met someone on the Camino who did the same; the pages from that day’s walk went in the bin. (But, I also lost a lot of weight on the Camino)
As for eating out on the Camino, it was the same clothes day after day.
“I was going out to a restaurant with six men, and I had nothing to wear but what I was already wearing, I realized glumly.”
This gave me freedom – I was just the same as everyone else, we all looked a bit rough after the first week.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do With your one wild and precious life?”
I have an answer to this now. For many years I just followed the expected path. Fear kept me on that path, I wasn’t the type of person that just followed their heart and made it work for them.
I like many walk around with regrets, regretting my own actions and sometimes those of others – but it is mainly my own that I whip myself with. Reading this line in the book made me pause:
“What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have?”
She unpicks this one in the book even further by asking: could she forgive herself for something that was wrong, knowing that she would do the same thing again if in the same situation? Could I, can you?
“The PCT had gotten easier for me, but that was different from it getting easy.”
And it is the same with the Camino. Walking 30 or 40km became standard, but I was still very tired at the end of the day.
“I didn’t know how living outdoors and sleeping on the ground in a tent each night and walking alone through the wilderness all day almost every day had come to feel like my normal life, but it had. It was the idea of not doing it that scared me.”
And I got to Santiago and stopped walking and missed it hugely. Maybe that is why I went back a few times to walk again and built this website. But sleeping in dorms with many others, sharing showers, and never having privacy became okay.
“Most of the people I met on the PCT passed only briefly through my life, but I was enriched by each of them. They made me laugh, they made me think, they made me go on another day, and most of all, they made me trust entirely in the kindness of strangers.”
There is something about long distance walks, the Camino, the PCT, even the West Highland Way in Scotland – the people I have met left me more than they took.
If you haven’t read the book I highly recommend it, even though it’s not about the Camino it is a great read.
I am currently reading The Four Agreements, but I am looking for more inspirational writing – any suggestions? Let me know in the comments below.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.