In 1995, during a 3 month period, Cheryl Strayed hiked 1,100 miles of the 2,663 mile Pacific Crest Trail. In 2012 she published Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. After an endorsement from Oprah, Wild topped the best seller lists. Cheryl became famous. She is a hero to many people.
In 2014 Wild was released as a motion picture, starring Reese Weatherspoon as Cheryl Strayed.
The online backpacking community (whatever that is) has been less than enthusiastic about Wild. Normally I don’t read these kinds of books – you know, the journey of self-discovery where nature solves all of a person’s problems.
There are many criticisms about Wild, but what must be pointed out is: the book is not about the Pacific Crest Trail (also known as the PCT) and it is not about backpacking. The setting for the book is the PCT and the vehicle to present her story is backpacking.
The story is Cheryl Strayed.
Nevertheless, many in the backpacking community have vilified Strayed. Comments are strong and often extremely derogatory. Some feel the negativity is due to fears that Strayed’s book may send legions of people to the PCT to “find” themselves. Whether or not this happens is debatable. Those folks who worry about this should be more concerned about the Internet and online backpacking forums sending hoards of unprepared people into our wild places.
I was disinclined to read the book. It was endorsed by Oprah, you know.
But I needed a little diversionary reading. I have been slowly working my way through Edward Gibbon’s 7 volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I am enjoying it, but it can be difficult reading. Gibbon doesn’t present the history in chronological order, nor does he use modern English, since it was published in the 18th century. A few weeks ago I found myself in an airport looking for that little diversion from Gibbon. I saw Wild was available on Kindle for $3.99 and I could probably read in on my trip. Somewhat curious about all the Wild hoopla, I downloaded it and finished it during my round trip flights.
What we know about Cheryl Strayed
What we know is what Cheryl tells us.
She grew up on a 40-acre parcel of land her mother and stepfather purchased, and lived in a house they built. The house didn’t have indoor plumbing. Heating and cooking was provided by a wood stove. They were poor; at least Cheryl tells us they were poor. And Cheryl was ashamed of being poor. But somehow in high school she manages to become a cheerleader and the homecoming queen. She goes to college. Unfortunately her mother dies of cancer in her senior year. Cheryl is devastated. She attends her college graduation ceremony but does not graduate because she did not finish one paper. Instead of finishing that paper and moving on; Cheryl self-destructs. She becomes sexually promiscuous. She dabbles in drugs, to include heroin. She is lost. She is living a depraved life, all of her own making. Then she walks a section of the PCT and finds herself. She becomes normal. Poor little white girl makes good. This is what Cheryl tells us.
White in America
Poor little white girl.
Would Wild be a best seller if Cheryl were Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Gay?
Would Wild be a best seller if Cheryl were a Charlie; that is, a man?
Charlie would not be criticized for being sexually promiscuous. What if Charlie really screwed up; such as going to Alaska and dying due to his own incompetence? That story would be a best seller too — if he were white. That story has already been written by Jon Krakauer and is titled, Into the Wild, the story of the demise of Christopher McCandless.
Praise and Criticism
Many readers have praised Strayed for her “honesty and courage.” Others have criticized her as a whore on drugs; and worse.
Is it fair to criticize Strayed? Sure, she decided to open her life to the world.
It befuddles me why someone would write a memoir full of personal character defects, which would be read by her young children. One can only surmise she did it for the money.
Do I have criticism for Strayed? No, not at all. People make mistakes in life; they make bad choices. It is not for me to judge them. Do I have praise for Strayed? No. She did nothing great or worth noting. She made mistakes, created her own adversity, overcame them, and became a normal person – an average person. There is nothing to praise. It really isn’t worth the time to write or talk about it; it wasn’t worth the time to read the book. It is melodrama at best. Strayed isn’t a hero. There is no reason to criticize Strayed.
The problem is the people who admire her.
Where have all the heroes gone?
There was a time; it seems, until a couple generations ago, that the public wanted to read about those larger than life heroes. People who reached far beyond what was previous thought possible. It appears we no longer want to read about people who dream big; dream the big dreams that most think are impossible; act on those dreams, and do the incredible. People like Sir Edmund Hillary, Roger Bannister, Ernest Shackleton, Bill Gates, Reinhold Messner, Steve Jobs, Thor Heyerdahl, or Ranulph Fiennes. These are the kind of people who used to capture the imagination and the respect of society.
Today the public wants to read about dysfunctional people who strive to become average. We are fascinated by the common man, the slow witted, the self-destructive. We are enthralled with the real and imaginary such as Bart Simpson, Honey Boo Boo & family, Precious, Roman Polanski, Charles Manson, Dennis Rodman, Forrest Gump, every guest on The Jerry Springer Show, idiots on Judge Judy, or Timothy Treadwell.
The problem isn’t Cheryl Strayed, it is the people who read this crap and think it is great. It’s the people who want to lionize the likes of Cheryl Strayed and Chris McCandless.
Amazon has 6,354 reviews of Wild.
- 58% give it 5 stars
- 24% give it 4 stars
Just because someone publishes a “National Enquirer” version of their dysfunctional life, doesn’t mean it’s worth printing, analyzing, or reading. It has no redeeming value at all, other than the fact the author probably made a lot of money.