Around these parts, we’re used to hearing people humble-brag about backpacking adventures and oh-so extreme outdoor pursuits.
When Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild,” takes the stage Friday at Winter Words to discuss her memoir of hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, nobody in Aspen would be surprised to hear a local audience member pipe up during the question-and-answer session to say they did it on a pogo stick.
But that kind of ego-stroking one-upmanship would be missing the point. Strayed’s book is about a hike like “The Old Man and the Sea” is about fishing. It follows a 26-year-old Strayed in the summer of 1995 as she hikes from the Mojave to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington, but the journey it chronicles is internal.
“People have been on bigger adventures and better adventures,” Strayed said from a book tour stop in Los Angeles. “So the point of ‘Wild’ is not, ‘Look at me, I did this hike and aren’t I so strong and courageous.’ It was more like, ‘Here is this profound experience I had being really outside of my comfort zone with something that was very hard for me to do, and came at the time when I was at my weakest.’”
“Wild” has become, yup, wildly popular. Topping bestseller lists and prompting Oprah to re-launch her book club, over the last year it’s been one of those phenomenal books that gets read by people who don’t normally read books.
The story goes like this: Cheryl loses her mom to cancer, then leaves her husband and, straying, changes her last name to “Strayed.” She then screws a bunch of guys, and one of these guys shoots her up with heroin. Then Cheryl is addicted to heroin. Then Cheryl goes on a long, long hike for which she isn’t really prepared and on which nothing all that extraordinary happens.
That’s basically it. But I’m not really giving anything away here. The unremitting joy of reading Strayed is in the telling. She deftly constructs an intensely personal literary memoir that avoids the genre’s many pitfalls — brashly hopping over them on the strength of her dark, punky voice. It doesn’t fall into cloying self help-y clichés and offers no easy lessons.
“I really just wanted to write a good book and tell the story and a true story of transformation, absent those Hollywood epiphany moments,” she explains.
In the 17 years after her hike, Strayed got married, had kids, wrote the novel “Torch,” and published the popular “Dear Sugar” column on TheRumpus.net. She did not, in that time, write about her big hike. Her husband, whom she met nine days after she got off the Pacific Crest, was among the many people encouraging her to write about it.
“He would always say, ‘You have to write about your hike,’ and I’d say, ‘No, I don’t really know what to say about it,’” she says. “I knew I was affected by the hike but I didn’t know everything that I would come to know about it. I think I benefited from that time.”
People around Aspen and other mountain communities have taken particular joy in the book. If you live here or spend time in the mountains, you will recognize characters she meets along the way, like the know-it-all clerks at REI, the trio of outdoorsmen called the “three young bucks,” along with the drop-outs living out of their cars and peddling chewable opium. You’ll find her nature writing fresh and unimposing, and her depiction of the toenail-losing despair of a long hike spot-on.
“Backpacking is a lot like writing a book,” she laughs. “It’s this deeply fun thing that’s incredibly awful and miserable a lot of the time.”
Strayed began the book tour for “Wild” in the Pacific Northwest, in cities like Portland and Seattle, where the nuances of backpacking life went over well at readings. When she did her first event in Manhattan last year, though, that material bombed. She recalls reading a comical scene where she lists all the ridiculous things she packed for her journey (in an oversized backpack later nicknamed “Monster”).
“I’m reading in SoHo and the room is utterly silent,” she remembers. “It was so excruciating that I stopped in the middle and said, ‘Listen, this is supposed to be funny, guys. This was killing it in Seattle.’”
The book includes elements of countless memoir sub-genres. For some readers, it’s a wilderness journey, for others it’s about grieving a mother, missing an absent father, giving up on a failed marriage, getting addicted to drugs, etc. At first glance, it sounds like the Frankensteinian concoction of some craven New York publishing house marketing guru, diversifying a book’s target audience. But it works, and rings true, because “Wild” is simply Strayed’s story.
“There are all these different pieces of the story that people attach to,” she says.
Among its fans is the actress Reese Witherspoon, who optioned “Wild” for a feature film. Novelist Nick Hornby has written a script, and Strayed says they’re aiming to begin shooting this summer.
After she’s done talking about “Wild,” she’s looking to write another novel. Then, perhaps, she says, another memoir.
“I want to write a book that has absolutely nothing to do with me,” she says. “I’ve been talking about myself an awful lot lately. It’ll be nice to talk about fictional characters.”
Winter Words: Cheryl Strayed
Presented by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation
Friday, April 12 • 6 p.m.
$20 general/ $18 for members / $15 students