A Long Distance Backpacker’s Book Review of “Wild”

Well, I finally did it. I found a used copy of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, and I READ IT.


I know, I know. I’m such a disgrace to the hiking community! I mean, she didn’t even hike the whole trail! How DARE she have a unique experience on the trail, one that is not JUST LIKE MINE. UGH. That’s SO annoying. AND OMG! Did you know she’s a total drug-using slut?!

If I hear another ignorant, slanderous, ill-formed opinion about this book by someone who has not read it, I am, literally, going to throw the book in their face. I keep it in my backpack, just in case this situation should arise.

Let me start by saying that I really appreciate trail books that are not all about the trail. Long distance hiking is about so. Much. More. Than putting one foot in front of the other and hammering out the miles. I have read too many books that read just like a log entry; “hike from _____ to _____ today. Saw X, Y, and Z. No water at the shelter. Going to town tomorrow. Yay, buffet food!” And while those books can be informative and helpful, even entertaining, they are shallow. They merely skim the surface of what one experiences on a long hike. In my writing, I have always tried to go beyond the day-to-day minutiae and really dig into the emotional and mental struggles of spending so much time by yourself, out of your comfort zone, walking.

Strayed’s book is less about hiking than it is about losing one’s way in the world and the very, very difficult task of finding your way back to yourself. Back from depression, loss, addiction. It’s about all the very bad, very big events and decisions along with the little tiny things that pile up over time, making it impossible to function without vice. It’s about a woman seeking to reclaim her life. She just happened to use the trail to do that.

Re-reading that last paragraph, I feel like I am describing my hiking story. I have not ever dealt with addiction to hard drugs, or had to endure the losses that Strayed did, but I remember a time in college, when I woke up and had a vodka and cranberry for breakfast and thought, “maybe this is too much…” Just as recently as last October, I had to force myself out of the house to go for a run, to eventually, literally, outrun my depression. I spent more than one night on the trail with men that I would never see again, just to be with somebody. So, no, Strayed is not so very different than your average hiker, than me.

If you are completely unable to relate to Cheryl’s story of misery, of addiction, of loss, of heartache, then you have led an enviably easy life. Perhaps your trials never drove you to seek the comfort of anonymous one-night stands or to try to fill the void with heroin, and that’s great. But Strayed’s did. And she was heartbreakingly candid about her faults, for which she should be praised, not torn down.

The argument that books like Wild and A Walk In The Woods (which I also enjoyed, because I love Bill Bryson’s writing, and I found the book to be very funny and very interesting, delving into the history of the trail and the places it connects) are going to cause the trails to be overrun with inexperienced, inept wannabe hikers is a little overstated. I believe that most people are going to read these books and think some variation of the thought, “gee, I could never do that!”

Maybe, however, some of them will decide that they can walk into REI, spend a few thousand on gear, and suddenly be a thru hiker. I can confidently say that every employee in the building would try to talk this person out of their foolish, uneducated attempt- or at the very least encourage further research.


But, honestly, isn’t more awareness of the trail system a good thing? Most hikers I know are passionate about the trails and wild spaces that they dedicate their lives to. Isn’t promoting those trails positive? The founders of the Nation’s most beautiful and celebrated trails, Benton McKaye, John Muir, Myron Avery, sought to promote exploration and outdoor recreation. These books and films are doing just that. With more recognition comes more traffic, sure. But with that traffic comes donations and volunteers. The trade-off is not purely one-way.

So, to everyone who has heard only bad things about Wild or A Walk In The Woods, but has not yet read them, I say go read. If nothing else, you will have read two well-written books by two respected authors, and your life cannot be worse for that. Take a weekend and polish them both off in one go. Do yourself the favor of at least being able to form your own opinion.

If you haven’t already, get your copy of Wild here.

What did you think?  Let us know your thoughts about Wild in the comments.

Bonus: If you’re still reading, you should probably check out this lovely graphic review.

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