In a turbulent year for women, Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is as relevant as ever
My dad has told me many times, in no uncertain terms that I should never, ever hitchhike. But when my cousin planned a trip across the country with his best friend, walking and hitching rides along highways to see the West, we all thought it sounded like a grand adventure. I picked them up in Denver, my 20-something cousin and his buddy. They were sunburned and sore from walking and so far pretty pleased with their adventure, despite a few illnesses and mishaps that had occurred on their way.
I could not, at the time — and still can’t for that matter — imagine sticking my thumb out and getting into a stranger’s car. We’ve all heard the stories. What if the person who picked you up tried to kill you?
“Honestly,” my cousin said, “even getting chased through the woods by a murderer sounds kind of fun.”
My cousin is a kind, thoughtful man who’s anything but heedlessly macho. But in that half-joking declaration, I caught a glimpse of a kind of privilege that I can’t touch. The privilege of someone who occupies their space with ease and confidence. Who knows they have a right to belong there, and believes that right will keep them safe.
It’s often hard to read adventure and travel writing written by men for the same reason it was hard to talk to my cousin about his travels. I am struck by the world they describe. It’s not the one where I live.
I inhabit a landscape of fears and potential dangers. I walk with keys between my fingers and one earphone dangling loose. I drive with my doors locked. When a twig snaps in the woods when my roommates and I are out mushroom hunting and adrenaline floods my stomach and my joints my first thought is not bear. My first thought is man with a gun. And how easy it would be up here to hurt all three of us. How nobody would even hear me scream.
Toward the end of her best-selling hiking memoir, Wild, author Cheryl Strayed encounters two men in the woods that set her on edge in the little ways that men often do, commenting on her body and how very alone she is. Later, when one of the men reappears at her camp after dark acting threatening, she writes, “At the sight of him I knew that everything I’d felt before was correct. That I’d had a reason to be afraid.”
Wild, which came out in 2012, is a memoir of Strayed’s 1995 attempt at hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. This year, it was the University of Montana’s Griz Read. Freshman students are encouraged to read the same book and participate in events to connect them with one another, and Strayed will speak at the university on Monday, October 15.
“It was as if I’d finally come across a mountain lion and I’d remembered, against all instinct, not to run,” Strayed writes about the man who scared her. “Not to incite him with my fast motions or antagonize him with my anger or arouse him with my fear.”
It’s a delicate dance that many women know by heart. How much of our brainpower is occupied every day by trying to keep ourselves safe? Strayed ended up unharmed but shaken. But the book features several of these moments: Strayed evaluating passing cars, looking for one that looked safe to hitch a ride with. A man reaching under the passenger seat of his truck for a bag of licorice and Strayed being certain he was about to pull a gun.
Wild is a wilderness story that acknowledges the hazards of existing as a woman in modern society, and all the minute and massive ways we adjust our lives to avoid those hazards. It is, in this day and age, as important as ever.
But Wild is also about not letting those fears dictate what we do and how we live. Choosing to exist in this world, on a trail or in the streets or at our jobs, despite sexism and danger and uncertainty, is the deep-breath-and-put-on-your-game-face choice women make every day.
The more we can talk about the different ways women experience outdoor spaces, travel and adventure, the more we can make those places friendlier and safer. Hopefully this conversation can expand to include the other boundaries, like race and class, that keep people from the mountains. Maybe someday the trails will truly be for all of us.
“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed,” Strayed writes. “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.”
Cheryl Strayed will speak in the Dennison Theatre at UM Mon., Oct. 15, at 7:30 PM as part of the President’s Lecture Series. Free. Doors at 6:30.