I’ve loved Cheryl Strayed since before I knew who she was. While her work moved me profoundly, the name “Cheryl Strayed” meant nothing to me. To me (and countless others), she was simply “Sugar.”
“Dear Sugar” to be precise.
The now famous letter “The Truth That Lives There” was one of the very first I’d read, and I remember the way it shook me to my core. A collection of readers all looking for a way out, wondering if they deserved one, if they were right to want one, and instead of judgment or rationalizations, Sugar boldly says,
“Go, even though there is nowhere to go. Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay. Go, because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough.” (Emphasis mine.)
In one letter I understood that readers spilled the darkest parts of their hearts to Sugar because Sugar would do the same. She’d talk about her past, her divorce, her parents’ divorce, her mother’s death and the rocky road it took to get her here, to you. Her words were mesmerizing. Her responses were always more than just advice; they felt like poetry. So who was this mysterious woman who could tell strangers baring their souls to her what they needed to hear all while baring her own as well?
Finally, in 2012 she revealed herself to us and the world as Cheryl Strayed.
In 2012 she released Wild.
I read Wild, Strayed’s debut memoir, in about three days, though “read” is putting it mildly. I devoured it.
Wild is the story of Strayed’s experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail—a 2,659-mile hike that winds its way from Mexico, through the Colorado Desert, over the Sierra Nevadas, all the way to Canada. Her decision to hike it is made almost on a whim. She sees a travel book in the grocery store and can’t stop thinking about it until before she has time to second-guess herself, she’s buying gear at REI and selling off her belongings in preparation for three solid months in the wilderness. Too little time to hike the whole distance, but enough to still be a mind-bending feat.
The real “why” behind it all is the most interesting part. Having just entered a particularly dark period of her life, Strayed is looking for answers anywhere she can find time. Instead of being a recent college grad with the world at her feet, she’s a young college dropout whose marriage has disintegrated, whose mother is dead from a sudden and aggressive cancer diagnosis, and whose self-destructive behavior has her spiraling downward fast.
In short? She’s lost and it’s clear that it’s the trail she hopes can ground her, whether she realized it at the time or not.
And so her adventure begins. As she takes one heavy step after another, stumbles on one obstacle after another, falters at one crossroad after another, Strayed uses her trademark style to put us there right alongside her. Her writing is effusive and lyrical and it never lets up, which made every moment of her journey a joy to read.
Her words wormed their way into my heart in just the same way that her responses would when she was Sugar. I felt like I was growing with her. It felt like we were in it together.
“Until now, I hadn’t even truly understood the world’s vastness—hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be—until each mile was beheld at walking speed.”
It’s hard to express just how much I loved this book. Watching Strayed go from this terrified and confused woman to someone braver and stronger and more confident and accepting of herself than she ever thought possible resonated with me profoundly. This book made me want to live. It made me proud of my own journeys. It made me feel a kinship with the author. It made me want to get out into the wild and breathe the same air she did.
I would read it again and again. Maybe one day I’ll even read it on the PCT. When I was done, anything seemed possible.