One year I ran. I ran every weekday morning. When I made my vow to run every weekday morning, I also made up my Rules Of Exception. The only excuse not to run would be 1) a fever of over 100° 2) a storm, with actual lightning and thunder, and 3) a wind chill reading below some ungodly number I can’t remember. Let’s say 18 degrees.
As I recall it now, none of those things ever happened. They’d almost, but then it would be 19 degrees or a fever of 99.9 and I’d have to go. And I went. For a year. What really sticks with me is the shocking difference between the idea of running—the vow, the idea, the frickin’ fantasy—and The Running. The moving of one’s body with one’s feet. The dusky gray squares of the sidewalk. The slick, mossy places. The crossings with cars. The sound of thudding: my shoes on pavement, my own heart.
Cheryl Strayed at age 26, never having backpacked anywhere ever, vowed to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. And she did it. She walked more than 1,100 miles, carrying a pack that, when she started out, she literally could not pick up.
Miles weren't things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one.
There were bears, snakes and leering strangers. There were steep drop-offs and slippery slopes. Strayed repaired her feet with duct tape. Her toenails fell off. She was hungry and couldn't afford a cheeseburger. She strained her drinking water from mud. She walked, with that impossible pack stripping the skin from her back, for 1,100 actual, real miles.
But, as you’d have to expect, these were also miles of the spirit. The Cheryl Strayed who began that improbable hike in the Mojave Desert, grieving and raging at the death of her mother, mourning the end of her marriage, spiraling with heroin and promiscuity, crossed the Bridge of the Gods from Oregon into Washington changed and empowered, with things to say that have made a difference to me and a lot of other people.
I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. … Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid.”
One morning, after my year was up, I fell and sprained my ankle, and that was it on running for me. The wrench, the nausea, the pain were so real, so memorable, I was never able to get past them. Never able to counteract them with a vow to run that I might keep. Never able to overcome my ingrained sense of self-protection that speaks in my mother’s voice, “You’ll get sick. You’ll get hurt. You’ll die.”
You can go to the bank with this: I will never hike the PCT. But because Cheryl Strayed is an extraordinary person who is also an extraordinary writer—fearless, generous, unapologetic, compassionate and really, really good—the truths she discovered upon the path are accessible to readers of this book, including readers who are sometimes weak, sometimes strong, and who sometimes fall short in the guts department.
Reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is no substitute for the PCT but it is a wise and powerful guide to the lessons of courage and the possibilities of life. I say read it. Gift it. Set it loose in your world.