Joanne Palmer: Carrying the weight of life
June 12, 2012
What would you do if, alone in the woods, you lost your hiking boot? You are miles from a town — without a cellphone — and this is your first backpacking trip. You have just removed Monster, your oversized backpack, and you are staring at your bruised, swollen feet, which are missing a few toenails, when Monster tips over and sends your boot off the edge of a cliff. Wouldn't you throw the other boot right after it?
For what is one boot without the other? What is a daughter without her mother? What is a wife without a husband?
These are some of the questions Cheryl Strayed grapples with in her book "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," the must-read memoir of the summer.
The book is Strayed's captivating account of backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail. Never heard of the Pacific Crest Trail? Neither had Strayed until a Pacific Crest Trail guidebook caught her eye while she was in a camping store to buy a shovel to dig her truck out of a snowbank. She returned to the camping store, bought the book and decided she was going to hike the trail. The fact that, at age 26, she had never backpacked didn't deter her. Being a novice, she buys hiking boots one size too small and an oversized backpack. Then, without even so much as a practice trip, a dry run, a walk around the block to test her gear, she starts off down the trail.
As I'm lying on the couch reading this, I'm thinking, "Seriously? No way. Come on." Surely she would have taken a test trip. Surely she would have tried her backpack on at home. Surely she would have worn her boots a few times to break them in.
Which is why she has the wrong fuel for her camp stove, her toenails start to fall off and she staggers under the weight of a 70-pound backpack loaded with 25 pounds of water, a folding saw and condoms.
Now she'll turn back, I think. She has to give up. But she doesn't. There isn't much she wants to return to. Her beloved mother has died at age 45 from lung cancer, her marriage is over and she is working as a waitress and experimenting with heroin and bad relationships. Adrift, she even changes her last name to Strayed "because even in my darkest days … I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed … from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn't have known before."
So she shoulders the backpack, puts one sore foot in front of the other and takes three months to hike 1,100 miles from the Tehachapi Pass in southern California to the northern Oregon border. Her goal: the Bridge of the Gods spanning the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. Along the way she encounters bears, rattlesnakes, dehydration, blisters and weather. To pass the time, she sings commercial jingles, reflects on her life and obsesses about Snapple.
One night, too tired to pitch her tent, she falls asleep alongside a pond and awakes to the sensation of small cold hands all over her body. Frogs! Hundreds of tiny black frogs hopping all over her. Oh, yuck!
"Wild" is a memoir of regaining your footing, of the healing power of nature and of the burdens we all must shoulder. As Strayed puts it, "I needed to carry that heavy weight. I needed to carry the weight that I could bear. That's what 'Wild' is about. We bear what we cannot bear."