While I was reading The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, and Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac, I wrapped myself in them thermally, a thick barrier built around me against the world. Lonely? No, happy to be alone with a book that made me feel more like myself, yet with more courage. There’s a third book that puts me in this mind; a different trek in the woods, Thoreau’s.
I wouldn’t call Cheryl Strayed’s Wild a spiritual journey, but an interior one reflected expertly through an underdog’s hike in the wilderness. Many writers have purposely made this trek to leave a society that no longer served them. What works so well for Strayed is the physical world forcing change. Thoreau, too, humbly triumphed. They both write of survival, that bare-faced and head forward movement against frozen rain while their worlds caved around them. This is what we need to survive in our lives as readers.
Thoreau described his first venture. “When first I took up my abode in the woods, that is, began to spend my nights as well as days there, which, by accident, was on Independence Day, or the Fourth of July, 1845, my house was not finished for winter, but was merely a defence against the rain, without plastering or chimney, the walls being of rough, weather-stained boards, with wide chinks, which made it cool at night” (8).
In Strayed’s Wild, we’re faced with shoes that make her feet unusable, ice that makes glass out of her forest path, forcing her to change her direction throughout. Her hike matched Thoreau’s solitude but invited more exterior enemies. A number of beasts threaten her: bears, rapists and a looming Sasquatch. Woven in the physical is an interior conversation and memories that refuse to leave her alone. In one memory, she doesn’t tell us “I was abandoned twice, first by an abusive father, then by a dying mother.” Instead she meditates and a scene comes from her psyche.
“The good things aren’t a movie. There isn’t enough to make a reel. The good things are a poem, barely longer than a haiku. There is his love of Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers. There are the chocolate bars he brought home from his job in a grocery store. There are all the grand things he wanted to be, a longing so naked and sorry I sensed it and grieved it even as a young child. There is him singing that Charlie Rich song that goes ‘Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world.’…He said this only when he was trying to woo my mother back, when he was claiming that things would be different now, when he was promising her that he would never again do what he’d done before.”
Through repetition, songs, and chocolate bars, we see a man incapable of doing what Cheryl is in fact doing on her hike: figuring out the chaos inside.
Both Thoreau and Strayed become vessels of nature for us.
Thoreau: I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame.
Strayed: I realized the day before had been the Fourth of July… In a flash, I could see myself from far above, a speck on the great mass of green and white, no more or less significant than a single one of the nameless birds in the trees…These mountains didn’t count the days.
This is a book I was so sad to finish not only because it helped me see the pine needles, smell the sweat and the wet dog of the imminent trail, but also to remember how I grew the part of myself that learned to accept me as I am.