Sunday, March 1, 2015

Feminism, faith, and backpacking: My reading of "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," by Cheryl Strayed

Instead of flying away for another quick overseas friends visit during this latest “bachelor weekend” while the kids were away, I stayed in the U.S. to lead on-trail hikes, study for upcoming youth teachings (on a couch, not a plane seat), work at Delta, tidy up the house, and write my first public book review.

So this is what it feels like to be a grown up.

Update 3/3/15: I finally joined Goodreads this morning, and posted this review there also.  I'm not sure how often I'll use it.  My new Goodreads profile is here.  Feel free to add me (or maybe it's "follow me," as we do on Twitter?), although I have no clue how that works.

Parental advisory: The book reviewed has some strong language and may not be for everyone.  Garth's Blog is not a book review website, but I do plan to feature occasional "Just Read" reviews of books that represent a variety of genres that may interest this audience.  My thoughts on other recently read books can be found elsewhere on the web, and of course on my personal blog.

Once an avid backpacker myself (especially overseas) before having kids, I was very much looking forward to reading “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”  The idea of a vulnerable, inexperienced backpacker, incidentally a female, solo-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail recalled my feelings of concern for a friend of mine who had originally planned to backpack through the Italian Dolomites by herself a couple summers ago.

Turns out that author Cheryl Strayed, now an outspoken and much admired feminist, writes more of a personal memoir interwoven with flashbacks than a straight up wilderness narrative.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

While I was far more interested in the actual backpacking episodes, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) often merely serves as an external setting for Strayed’s struggles with her internal demons.   The book plays out like two parallel stories.  Memories of her mother passing away, the dissolving of her marriage, and the self-destructive behaviors of her past (and sometimes present) are what both drives her to escape to the Pacific Crest Trail and also what propels her forward as she backpacks north to Bridge of the Gods.

Note:  Those self-destructive behaviors are frequent and depicted in occasionally coarse detail.

Rather than telling a story of personal transformation, Strayed seems to be conveying that she is ultimately okay with the same choices which some readers would find questionable.  [3/5/15- Driving home from a Mount St. Helens climb that I led today, a couple of my friends objected that Strayed did in fact express regret for various things that happened in the past.  There's a good chance that I overlooked those passages and thus misunderstood Strayed's heart about how she feels now].

Regret is not completely absent in the writing (particularly in regards to memories of her mother and some of her missteps in preparing for and backpacking along the PCT).  However, Strayed gives the impression that, given a second chance, she would not have chosen better behaviors, i.e., being faithful to her husband, being less cavalier about her sexual encounters, being more prepared for the PCT, etc.  It’s difficult to discern whether she’s learned from many of her missteps, as opposed to merely accepting them for the sake of accepting herself.

As a follower of Christ myself, I’ll also admit that I was hoping for Strayed to progress from the point of her life where she once considered God a “ruthless bitch” into a faith journey that is more meaningful than a belief in the impersonal will of “the universe.”  I really appreciated Strayed’s candor about the doubts and skepticism that every human struggles through.  But at the same time, I was saddened to think that she experienced some of my most beloved areas of creation that I've hiked in the Northwest, and yet missed the chance to ponder what they might reveal about her Creator.

Strayed’s backpacking adventure on the PCT is a wonderful example of a woman accomplishing something that is, for whatever reason, still often considered to be within male-dominated territory.  While not the strongest (but still really good) rallying cry for feminism I’ve ever read (due to what I mentioned about Strayed's dismissal of her missteps and also the fact that she did, after all, decide to bypass significant sections of the PCT trail for various reasons), it is nonetheless a compelling story that will have the reader cheering, “You go, girl!” until the final steps of her journey.

In the words of a goofy, peripheral character who crosses paths with the emerging full beast-mode backpacker Cheryl Strayed:

“I think it’s neat you do what you want.  Not enough chicks do that, if you ask me—just tell society and their expectations to go [paraphrase: take a hike].
If more women did that, we’d be better off."


Antonette Spaan said...

I loved this book! Went to see the movie 2 weeks and loved it, too ... I might travel to Oregon next year for a meeting and then I'd like to hike the PCT for a bit ... would be a dream come true!

Garth Hamilton said...

Wasn't the book great, Anto? I'm always afraid to see films based on books that I love, but last December I secured a couple of Wild sneak-preview passes for me and a good hiking/climbing buddy of mine. But my buddy showed up late... and they wouldn't let us into the movie theater!

I've hiked a lot of the PCT but not most of it. Tackle as much as you have time for when you're in the U.S.! Any time you or Martijn are hiking in the Pacific NW you guys have a (in)convenient place to crash in Beaverton as an option.