Monday, January 12, 2015

Gone Wild

I really didn't expect to like Wild.  Why?  I used to read Strayed's Dear Sugar column at The Rumpus, and if I thought it was a bit verbose for my taste, I couldn't help but admire the true empathy and compassion of the writer.  She told a lot of personal stories, and she used metaphors with a lot of emotional resonance--something that doesn't usually work with me, but somehow made the same advice that anyone rational would give--you need to leave him; you have to forgive her; you must love yourself--feel much more solid that you'd expect.  She acknowledged how hard a lot of these simple prescriptions are, and she talked a lot about the emotional work involved in following through with them.

But--hiking.  A soul searching journey through the mountains.  I expected this book to be like listening to a bunch of John Denver songs in a row--mostly about being one with the earth, and best done when a little stoned. 

Somehow Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern talked me into reading the book.  The movie looked a little more whimsical, and Laura Dern's appearance in the ads emphasized the relationship with her mother.  Her mother's death is something Dear Sugar talked about a lot--how losing her mother at the age of 24 completely changed her life, threw her for a loop that led to a lot of self-destructive behavior and eventually a lot of wisdom.  I liked that emphasis in the trailers.

So I picked up Wild, and I'm kind of shocked that I loved it.  First off, Strayed can write.  Look, I really, really hate mushy, spiritual, what-life-really-means insights.  I don't like generalizations about spirituality or Truth or the state of one's mind and emotions.  I like concrete specifics.  And here, Strayed dealt with abstracts through concrete specifics, and also blew the straight-abstract stuff out of the water.

Okay, what do I mean?  (Seriously, you're talking about specifics, Sharon, be specific.)  Okay, most of the actual book is spent on the trail.  It's about the days of putting one foot in front of the other, and much of that time is spent on the small facts of hardship, deprivation, exhaustion, solitude, and unpreparedness.  It's a nitty-gritty how-to, only mostly a how-not-to, since she wasn't as prepared as she could have been.  Much more time is spent on the tangible than on the intangible.

But at the same time, this is definitely about the emotional aspects of the journey.  It is not about beautiful views, and she only communes with a couple of animals.  Her mother is tied through the story with memories, anecdotes, and explanations of what Cheryl herself is thinking about.

There's definitely a metaphorical element to the story; that would be hard to avoid.  From the backpack so heavy she literally couldn't lift it at first to the shoes that are too small no matter how much she insists that they're right, there are clear parallels between the internal and external journey.  Between the detailed descriptions of boredom and stupidity at the beginning and the smooth, clear sailing near the end, the writing style definitely captures the sense of both her physical and emotional journey.  But it doesn't club you over the head.

Essentially, you can't pick apart the hiking story and the emotional journey.  Neither is slave to the other, and both are engrossing and incredibly touching and left me so empathetic to this experience I've never had.  I understand the desire to pitch everything to try to get rid of your ugly baggage.  I'm proud of her for taking on this overwhelming task without being adequately prepared for it.  I know the scrambling sense that if you just try hard enough, you'll be able to hold together the sandcastle that's coming apart in the relentless tide.

And now I kind of want to go hiking.

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