Cheryl Strayed is a Minnesota native, and the author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Wild is the journey of Strayed’s 1,100 mile, three month solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail and the personal struggles that led to her hike, including the tragic loss of her beloved mother to lung cancer when Cheryl was 22-years-old. Oprah Winfrey selected Wild for her book club, which led to a spot on the New York Times best seller list, and Reese Witherspoon commissioned the rights to and starred in the movie Wild, now a major motion picture.
During a recent phone conversation from her current home in Portland, Oregon, Cheryl kicked off our interview by describing how the purchase of a shovel changed her life. While living in Minneapolis many years ago, Cheryl visited REI in Bloomington to buy a shovel to dig her truck out of the snow. She also purchased a book that caught her eye, about the Pacific Crest Trail. This book, plus her impulsive decision to hike the trail, would help her dig out from the overwhelming grief and despair she was experiencing since the death of her mother.
Q: You said, “The trail did what I hoped it would do.” What exactly was that?
Cheryl: After my mom died, I— like other people in pain often do— did things that were not good for me: I dabbled with drugs and slept with people I didn’t care about. But I wasn’t a bad person, I just needed to re-set my course and find my strength again in a positive way. I wanted to feel good about myself again, and I knew the wilderness would fill me up with good stuff. The trail did that for me.
Q: One of the reasons Wild seems to resonate with so many readers is because the lessons learned on the trail are applicable to every day life. Can you comment on those?
Cheryl: Of course, there is “putting one foot in front of the other,” “keep on moving even when you can’t see exactly what is ahead,” and also just the act of “surrendering to circumstances.” Sometimes it’s just hard, or hot, or cold, or rainy and we just need to do the best we can with it. Take pain for example. In childbirth, pain can be so great that you have to just take it minute by minute. But life isn’t all hard. We can also surrender to the joy… there is joy to be found in the way someone smiles at you. Life is a special show of profound beauty.
Q: In the book, you reveal you used heroin, but you were not yet addicted. What or who helped you to stop using?
Cheryl: I would say it was a combination of caring friends around me making interventions, plus my own inner, wise voice saying, “You can’t do this to your life. You have got to get out of here.” I was fortunate to be able to pull myself back.
Q: Fear is a theme throughout your book and you provide several quotes that reveal your approach to fear. You write, “Fear to a great extent is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told,” “We assign danger to the unknown. I didn’t want to do that,” and “Hello fear. Walk beside me but don’t be the thing that dictates all my decisions.” Out of all the situations you encountered on the trail, what frightened you the most?
Cheryl: The time I ran out of water. That was when I knew I was in actual danger.
Cheryl: Oh, when you become a parent, you worry about your kids, and about dying young and not being there to raise them. I realized after losing my mom, no one would ever love me again like she did. If you lose a lover, you can get another lover who will love you in that way, but nobody loves you like a mother does.
Q: Your gigantic backpack on the trail was nicknamed ‘monster’ and became symbolic for the heavy emotional load you were carrying. What advice do you have for readers seeking to lighten their emotional load?
Cheryl: So much of life is figuring out what we can let go of and what we have to bare. I had to figure out, how do I carry on a relationship with my mom who isn’t here anymore? Today I carry her in the work and writing I do and the way I raise my kids. But with my dad, who is still alive, I had to come to peace with the wound I’ve had all my life in my relationship with him. Finally, I figured out I could forgive him and that is where I found my peace and release.
Cheryl: People ask me all the time, “Was the fox your mom?” It was a sacred moment that is complicated and difficult to describe. I was really struggling with how to carry on my relationship with my mom since she died, and I came to the realization that I would have to cross realms in order to connect with her. When the fox and I looked each other in the eye, it was a rare moment in life where I was able to cross a specific line, a realm, and we were able to recognize our humanity, our self-hood.
Q: Is your success in life due in part to your humility?
Cheryl: It’s funny, just saying I’m humble makes me sound not humble, doesn’t it? But yes, I would like to think I’m humble. I think the first sign of emotional maturity is humility. In order for me to be the best person I can be I have to be humble.
Books by Cheryl Strayed
• Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
• Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Mary Rose Remington is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.