This book inspired equal parts envy, admiration and disdain.


Envy because taking months out of my everyday life to go and hike a long distance trail like Strayed did is the sort of thing I dream of but am not ready to do. The implications in terms of lost revenue and career damage are too significant.

Admiration because walking over 1,000 miles carrying your food and accommodation on your back is a massive feat.

I’ll explain the disdain part in a moment.

Strayed was not Cheryl’s original last name. It was one she chose after divorcing a man she still loved. Her marriage had disintegrated in the years following her mother’s death from cancer — a shock that sent Strayed’s life into a tail-spin involving sex and drugs.

After aborting an unintended pregnancy, Strayed hits a turning point. A chance sighting of a guidebook in a store decides her to walk a large section of the Pacific Crest Trail — a hard-core hike across California, Oregon and Washington.

We travel with Strayed on this journey as she gradually overcomes the hardships of the walk and re-centres herself mentally.

Strayed’s writing is entertaining and engaging. The fact that no hindsight leaks into the story is admirable. We see what she saw at that stage of her life. We feel what she felt. We experience the wilderness through eyes that look on its stark openness for the first time. She doesn’t labour the changes that are happening to her mental state throughout her journey. The alterations are gradual and believable — unencumbered by armchair-psychiatry-style dissections of how the journey brought her back from the brink of ruin.

I could understand how easy it was for her life to go off the rails at the start of the book. Looking back at my life, I can see that mine could have gone the same way had I not made certain pivotal choices before it was too late. Other things she did, however, I found very difficult to read.

She plans ahead and purchases the necessary items for the trail — pack, boots, camping stove etc — and sets up packages to be mailed to herself at the trail checkpoints. But in other ways she is woefully unprepared.

For someone who is about to walk 1,000 miles in the middle of nowhere, not putting on new boots for a trial-run before setting out seems foolhardy. Not packing your bag or trying it on until just before you leave is stupid too. Especially if it turns out you can barely lift the bag, let alone walk with it.

Despite these problems, Strayed departs and is soon facing the wilderness in all its dangerous glory. Walking the trail alone, she is terrified of the potentially life-threatening and also definitely not life-threatening wildlife. Yet the critters do not cause her largest problems. The conditions — desert heat and mountain snow — do that admirably. Strayed’s inadequate preparation shines through each of her crises.

My intense pragmatism was shocked by her decision to walk down a trail with only just enough water to reach a water source that had been known to be unreliable. Ditto for her belief that she could cross mountains that may be covered in snow without beforehand learning how to use a snow-axe. Or her decision to hike along an at times poorly marked path by herself without understanding the principles of using a compass to navigate.

Strayed was lucky. She didn’t end up a dehydrated corpse to be discovered by another hiker on the trail. Nor did she wander off the path to either die or be found by long-suffering emergency services staff.
In Australia, we are constantly hearing stories of tourists (and locals) who underestimate how inhospitable our beautiful country can be. Even experienced hikers sometimes have to call in the cavalry. Our search and rescue teams are the ones who brave dangerous conditions to find and save the under-prepared. They put their lives on the line and waste wads of public cash to save those who couldn’t be bothered to put the effort into keeping themselves safe.

I know Strayed’s book will inspire people looking for meaning in their lives to try her extreme wilderness cure. Many of them will have indescribable experiences that change the way they think and make them into better people. I just hope, for their sake and the tax payers’, that they are better prepared than she was.

These bitter thoughts tainted Strayed’s words for me. That’s why I’m going to give her book a three out of five.