Review of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail

I finished the underwhelming Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Coast Trail a few months back, and it was a battle to get through it all. Read my thoughts below, if you don’t fear spoilers.

The good: I enjoyed the descriptions of the trail, and almost anything related to the actual hike, and I thought the writing was quite good. I also appreciated how honest the writer was.

The bad: This is a memoir, so it’s key for the reader to care about the subject, but I didn’t find Cheryl Strayed likeable or sympathetic. I wasn’t invested in or inspired by her triumphs, and I found the other hikers she meets along the way to be more colorfully drawn.

Hiking the PCT is mega impressive and badass and an appealing level of crazy, and the author did/does have an interesting life. However, no amount of contemplative staring out over lakes could convince me that this was some intense, transformative journey. It seems lucky – not inspiring – that by running away to the PCT, she was able to learn to grow up. Also, for a story of the time she was practically alone for months in the forest, there’s an exceptional amount about men, and nearly everything about men is about sex. I wanted her revelations to be more focused on how she relates to the world, or learning to like herself, but instead so much of the book seemed to hone in on how she relates to men. She might be hardy and resilient, but certainly not empowering.

Anyway, I understand why a lot of people like this book, but I didn’t learn or feel anything beyond an appreciation of the toughness of long distance hikers.

Exploring audio books on foot: part one

I originally decided to try out audio books for running and road trips. With the latter, I found even the most compelling story made me sleepy. When driving from Calgary to Winnipeg in one go (1325 km or about 13 hours with food breaks), I need peppy, bouncy, soulless pop music from the 90’s and 00’s to keep me alert and able. Slight clarification: it’s a completely different experience if me or my road trip mate are reading aloud. Perhaps I’m just wired to pay more attention to someone I can see. Anyhow…

runner with headphonesListening to an audio book while running took some experimentation. I began by downloading books I thought would be inspiring (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall), energizing (Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing), diverting (Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling), and comforting (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen). Some of these were favourites and some of these were new, but with every attempt I came closer to finding the type of book I knew would be effective in keeping me going over the building mileage in my marathon training.

Obviously Born to Run was going to be a good one. I’d read the paper version twice, but I think I enjoyed the story in my ear even more as I ran the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood, pushing beyond my easy pace and playing with my running form as Fred Sanders (the narrator) explained how my body was made for this motion. Unfortunately, I can’t just listen to that book again and again. It’s only 11 hours… which sounds like a lot but isn’t when you’re averaging 25-30 miles a week. I’ve since downloaded Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running but haven’t taken it out on the roads or trails yet. I feel like it’s going to be atmospheric, and I think I’m waiting for the winter to experience Murakami’s phrasing in my mind.

Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me, even shorter at a paltry 5 hours, was a joy. I’ve come to think all memoirs/autobiographies/essays by comedians should be experienced as audio books. I’m sure it’s funny on paper, but funnier when Mindy Kaling is telling you her stories with her own timing, cadence, and inflections. The same goes for Amy Poehler’s Yes Please!, which has the added secret value of guest narrators like Patrick Stewart and Seth Meyers and moments of laughter and improvisation that you won’t find in the bound version. This category of badass-successful-feminist-female comedians definitely works for me. I get to feel powerful and feminine, entertained and empowered, and it’s the right amount of diversion and lightness for 3-6 mile recovery runs. Right now, Caitlin Moran is making me laugh and wince as she develops her first adult feelings about – of all people – Chevy Chase, and tries to find the right names for her “bathing suit areas” in How To Be A Woman. Her stories are embarrassing, not for their content, but for their familiarity.

I’m also trying to enjoy Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, but aside from the interest I have in the actual journey, and the appreciation I have of her story-worthy, atypical life, I don’t like her. I wish she’d hurry up and get her shit together. It’s not entertaining to me to listen to her cheat on her husband and do a lot of heroin. It’s physically painful to me to imagine not thinking about the weight of a hiking pack… or attempting to pack it… prior to embarking on this massive expedition. She’s an incomprehensible mix of determination and complete lack of foresight. But I think I could get over that if they’d chosen a different narrator. I’m sorry Bernadette Dunne. You are totally great at your job. I have no problem with you or your style at all. BUT you sound like you’re in your 50s, and Cheryl at the time of this journey was in her 20s. It’s distracting.

— To be continued —