Cheryl Strayed Is Brave Enough To Break Her Own Heart
By Chelsea Skojec
At a time in her life when she felt disconnected from humanity, drowning in the lingering emotional pain evoked by the untimely death of her mother, grappling with a divorce from the man she still loved, author Cheryl Strayed decided to escape to nature — specifically, a 1,100-mile stretch of it on the Pacific Crest Trail, a strand of pristine wilderness along the densely populated west coast of the United States. The trail traverses elevations as high as 13,000 feet, emblazons the extremities of winter and summer no matter the time of year, and passes through seven national parks and 25 national forests, accompanied by the sheer beauty and immensity of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges that endlessly fade off into the horizon.
A few years after this momentous trek, Strayed captured her experiences in a memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Shortly after its release, the book became Oprah’s first selection for her book club 2.0, spent 126 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film, and inspired a cult following for the author, her work, and the idea of using nature as a means to reconnect with the parts of us that make us uniquely human.
Strayed, who is also known for her work on The Rumpus’ wildly popular Dear Sugar column, recently released a new book, Brave Enough, a collection of a hundred of her quotes serving as “mini-instruction manuals for the soul.” The title comes from her quote, “be brave enough to break your own heart,” a mantra about overcoming fears of risk, adversity, or the unknown.
In an exclusive interview, The Establishment spoke with Strayed about the importance of connecting with nature, how she developed her writing career after that portentous hike, her thoughts on persuading the naysayers of feminism, and when to channel your inner “wild.”
The Establishment: After you completed your transformative hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, how did you develop your writing career?
Cheryl: I was a writer before I hiked the PCT, and after it I kind of continued the work I was doing, which was essentially apprenticing myself to the craft of learning how to write. I did that by reading a lot, and by writing as much as I could, which sometimes wasn’t very much and sometimes would mean going for days on end in sort of a binge fashion.
I pursued writing at first completely outside of academia; I was a waitress and wrote as much as I could on the side, and when I was about 30, I started looking up and thought, How could it be that I still haven’t managed to finish my first novel? I had this idea that maybe it would come easier than it did. I decided I really needed time to focus on it and do the kind of deep immersion that I found is really necessary to writing a book. So I applied to graduate schools that would give me full funding in order to use the time as a big deep long writing residency. And that’s exactly what I did. I went to Syracuse University, and it was there that I was really able to sink in and write what became my first book. I didn’t finish the book in graduate school, but I finished the first half, which was enough to get a running start, if you will.
The Establishment: More and more, people are beginning to realize how much we need nature, and how much it needs us to protect it. How can nature be used as a tool for feminism and empowering women?
Cheryl: It’s a big thing, not just for women, but for men and women. I think we have this idea that we’re separate from the wild and natural world; we forget that we’re animals. It’s really an essential nutrient in our life to have that contact with other living things, and you can only really get that by going into nature.
For me, the experience is fundamental in that it really connects me not only to the quietest and deepest places within my own life, but also to a sense of others in the world. It’s sort of an interesting paradox: when I’m alone or in that kind of quiet space in the natural world, I feel the most connected to humanity. It’s a retreat place for me to reflect on our moral obligations to each other and to other living things as well.
People talk to me about how Wild inspired their life, but say, ‘I can’t go on a big 94-day hike.’ For me, it doesn’t even have to be that. Honestly, just walking in a city park, getting that little patch of green in your life can make a big difference.
The Establishment: How do you respond to people, both men and women, who reject feminism entirely?
Cheryl: I guess there are two kinds of people who reject feminism. One category of people are sort of impossible — the people who really, actually believe women shouldn’t be, and aren’t, equal to men. Those people . . . I really don’t know what to say to them. But I will say this: there’s a huge category of people who reject feminism based on false ideas about what feminism is, and those people I do sometimes try to talk to.
For some mysterious reason I’ve never understood, somewhere along the way, feminism was interpreted in this misinformed way of man-hating, with the goal to put men down so women can rise up, when nothing can be further from the truth. I think feminism benefits men every bit as much as it benefits women. I always talk about all the things we find to be perfectly acceptable and reasonable, like women owning property and having the right to divorce at their own choosing, or having custody of their own children, or having jobs without their husband’s permission. All of these things are products of feminism and the feminism movement. Women having the right to vote, for example; I think most people now think that’s a good idea, and that’s feminism at work. I think that appealing to people’s reasonable minds is the best way to change people’s views against it.
The Establishment: What do you do to unwind and recover when there isn’t a Pacific Crest Trail to hike?
Cheryl: Simple things. I take a walk, read. It’s interesting; the two things I did the most on the PCT, walking and reading those books I brought along the way, are still my deepest consolation. I think when I’m feeling mixed up about something, a walk really eases my mind, even if it doesn’t obliterate the problem. And in books, I find inspiration, consolation, recognition, and perspective, which I think is really important when we get absorbed in our own troubles.
The Establishment: How can people know when to listen to their inner voice telling them to do impulsive things like hike the Pacific Crest Trail . . . and when to dismiss giving in to those inclinations?
Cheryl: In my Dear Sugar column and in my Brave Enough quotes, I say things like ‘trust that voice’ — but we all know, and I write about this too, that most of us have at least two voices. One voice says go and do this and you can. The other voice says don’t and you can’t and you shouldn’t. Generally, I tend to trust the voice that is more affirmative, the voice that asks you to take a bolder path, but sometimes you have to listen to that more cautious voice.
The best advice I could give to someone who is really questioning those two voices is to go a little deeper and to interrogate what each of those voices is saying. What are the reasons that you should go hike the PCT, and what are the reasons you shouldn’t? I’m a big fan of making lists. So when I really am torn about something, I sit down and lay those reasons out so I can see my decision more clearly.