Like many, I had been hotly anticipating Cheryl Strayed’s memoir WILD, about her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. I had been so hotly anticipating it, and reading so much about the hottness of others’ anticipation, that I got a little worried. How could it live up? And there were points in the first, oh, thirty pages or so when I was almost ready to say, yeah, it can’t, quite, not to that much hype, not to someone like me who’s already gleaned much of the backstory from essays and columns. But those moments flew by and before I knew it I was shushing my husband, burning midnight oil, walking to work under the weight of my lunch- and-laptop-stuffed backpack with the crunch of the trail in my ears. I love this book!
Its merits have been detailed elsewhere, and will deservedly continue to be. One of the things that resonates closest to home for me is just the fact of a woman’s solo journey. It occurs to me—without immediately being able to trot out much support—that it’s becoming an archetype, this vision questy sort of trek undertaken by a woman in her twenties, the punishment and purification of the trail or the road met outside of a vehicle, the necessity of the solitude and the way gender informs, deconstructs, falls away in its face. Maybe it just seems like an archetype because I’m reading this one book now and have read maybe a couple solo-women-traveler anthologies and have lived a version of it, talked to other women who have. It’s ready to be an archetype. We need it.
I’ve wrestled with the large role the journeys I took in my twenties continue to play in my writing and in my imagination, in my sense of myself. At times I’ve felt sheepish about it. ‘This is the last time I’m going to write about Southeast Asia,’ I told myself about the essay that’s going to appear in The Beautiful Anthology. Shouldn’t I have other grand themes by now? And I do, to some degree. But to another degree, I don’t, actually. The hitchhiking and backpacking remain cornerstones, bedrocks of my identity. Even motherhood—the painful antithesis to solo voyaging, it would seem, and the start of new story lines—I’ve seen differently because of the solo-journey lens.
I’m writing about the hitchhiking trip in the memoir I’m working on right now. I’m writing about stuff even further back, stuff I’ve often told myself to let go of. Why keep fingering it, picking at it? I sometimes fear I’m destroying it by doing so, creating a false construct in its place. But I’m taking from WILD something that I need, which is permission to continue to examine crucial moments and milestones, to go back to them repeatedly, to allow their importance to remain and illuminate even as my life rolls on. What happens when we’re young—young children, young in our sense of ourselves as adults—is important.
I think at times I’ve been too ready to devalue youth, especially my own female youth, which is something I deride others for doing. I can view the years separating me from youth as a divorce, where one stage can no longer lay claim to what’s found in another. But we exist at once. That’s what I more often feel lately. It’s one of the nice things about getting older, how much we can contain.
Women can do this, take on mythic journeys and be forever changed, and there is a literature of it. There’s coming to be one. WILD. So good.