Photo by Laurie Thompson
by Ana Maria Spagna
Each summer, while we moved heavy rocks or sawed suspended logs or cleared head-high stinging nettles, Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, those heading to Canada from Mexico, sped past us. They needed to keep moving because they were so close to the end–only 80 miles shy of the border, they were, in some ways, sick of it all–and because they usually wore shorts despite thick swarms of biting black flies. Those of us who had to stand still kept every inch of skin clothed.
Back in town, after work, we’d run into thru-hikers in the post office, scruffy and unshowered, as they collected the resupply boxes they’d sent ahead to themselves. Many were hiking alone, so they were desperate to talk to someone, to anyone, and you could get stuck for way too long if you weren’t careful. Some neighbors griped about that or about the body odor stench, but neither the chatter nor the smell bugged me as much as the attitude. They acted proud, exceedingly so, and entitled to the random kindnesses bestowed on them over months on the trail, the gifts from so-called trail angels: food, rides, a bed or a shower, sometimes cash. The hikers gushed dreamily about the miracle of it all, like ticket-grubbing stoners outside Grateful Dead concerts.
Over beer around a campfire, we sneered freely. How privileged were these modern-day pilgrims with quadriceps thick as hams who prattled on and on, frantic and breathless? Who could afford to take an entire summer off to walk? The truth was any of us could. We were used to frugality but wouldn’t allow ourselves the frivolity. We believed in hard work and in loyalty to one place.
I sometimes joked that when thru-hikers bragged about hiking 2,500 miles, we should say we’d hiked just as many PCT miles, but all on the same fifteen-mile stretch, one on which we knew every marshy bog, every sun-scorched switchback, every patch of boxwood or wild cherry; we knew where to find long-stashed rock bars, usable outhouses, peek-a-views of peaks, where we were likely to encounter a bear or a porcupine. We knew the trail, as they say, like the backs of our hands or more like our hard-calloused palms.
Of course, we said no such thing to thru-hikers. We didn’t say much at all. We listened politely, congratulated them, and got back to work. These were our customers, after all, more like our employers since their taxes paid our wages, and we were glad, genuinely, to see the trails getting used. Still, underneath it all, we believed we were the real thing, and they were not.
Over time, especially once I’d quit trail crew, my wife and I offered thru-hikers grudging respect–it is a long way to walk–and occasional kindnesses: a two-pound block of cheddar for the woman with a llama subsisting on edible plants, a ride in the back of our pickup for the woman with her small son, the youngest ever to complete the trail, walking mostly barefoot, a blind eye for the guy camping illegally since he was hiking with two very large trunks that he hauled across 50-yard stretches, one at a time, trunks rumored to be packed with bars of soap. We gave away socks and bags of chocolate, beer on occasion, and once an old pair of running shoes. We didn’t go as far as others. No camping in the yard. No free meals or showers. If you start that business, within days, word would be out. Everyone would knock on your door.
All of this was before Wild.
As soon as I heard about the memoir, I recalled the first time I’d heard about the movie Titanic. What a silly idea, I’d thought. That’s the oldest story in the book. The memory came charging back like a cautionary tale. The Pacific Crest Trail? Gawd. Everyone knew that story, didn’t they? Then I thought again. I’d read Cheryl Strayed’s essays and admired them, and I had an inkling Wild would be a good book.
And it was, excellent in fact, a book about an inner journey through grief and into selfhood. I loved the way the trail grounded the story, kept it moving, and the way Strayed portrayed herself, too: never the braggart, never the victim, raw, vulnerable, smart, unapologetic, sad and lonely, but resilient as hell. The lyric prose moved steady and sturdy, clear, rhythmic and right. More than anything, the story seemed true, like what this woman truly needed to say. Not what she needed to say about hiking, but what she needed to say about life, truth, beauty, love.
I figured that was all I had to say about Wild. But I was wrong. The book haunted me. People who read the memoir–friends, neighbors, co-workers, students, and sometimes strangers on the ferry–asked me about it. At first, I’d happily engage. I’d explain what I admired, but clearly my enthusiasm disappointed people. They wanted me to scoff, or better yet, to tear into Cheryl Strayed.
Some readers disapproved of Strayed’s promiscuity on the trail, which made me wonder: What else did they read? Did they never watch HBO? Had they never sown oats themselves in their twenties? None? I didn’t want to know, so I held my tongue. Others struggled with her characterization of heroin use. People who’d faced addiction, personally or with friends or family, could not abide her casual use or her easy abandonment of the drug. To them I had no reply. I couldn’t say whether someone could toy with heroin then drop it. I could say only that Strayed did not strike me as a liar.
Outdoorsy types took issue with her unpreparedness. Backpacking, after all, depends on careful planning. The sheer number of gadgets and tricks to reduce pack weight constitutes a regular OCD candy shop. Even if you lean sloppy, as I always had, it takes time and intention, as well as cash and ingenuity, to learn what you need to carry, what you don’t, and it takes time and commitment to get in shape for a long trek. Strayed, they said, hadn’t even tried. I tried to mention how often we saw unprepared hikers in the woods, every single day, and how none of them died. If they suffered, they brought home a good story. Just like Strayed did.
Finally, people bristled at the fact that she didn’t finish the trail. She hiked 1,100 of 2,650 miles. It didn’t seem to matter that she never intended to finish or that maybe not finishing made her more human and relatable to readers who aren’t hard-core hikers. This one was easiest to dismiss. I’d heard the same complaints about Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Not prepared? Check. Not in shape? Check. Not enough knowledge about the trail? Check. Plus he had outright complaints, way more than Strayed. All those damned trees: boring, boring, boring. I tried to remind Strayed’s detractors about Bryson, but people shook their heads in disgust. Some seethed.
After a while, I desperately wanted to avoid conversations about Wild. But I couldn’t. I had to keep defending the book because, well, this was madness. Misogyny seemed to lie at the heart of it. Do we demand such authenticity of men? I never saw “I hate Bill Bryson” blogs, but type “I hate Cheryl Strayed” into a search engine and you’ll find plenty, and the sheer viciousness reminded me of attacks against Hillary Clinton, the near-apoplectic sense of outrage. I hadn’t heard it this bad since Eat Pray Love. (I’d later learn Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert faced similar challenges with similar grace. Individually, they kept urging women to speak and write honestly. Together they raised money for Syrian refugees.) As with Clinton and Gilbert, much of the venom came from women. Over and over they asked: What has Cheryl Strayed done that’s so much better than me?
I’d be lying if I said I’d never thought it myself. When Wild came out, I’d already written a memoir about working on trails that sold many million copies fewer than Strayed’s book. If I thought too hard about that fact, envy crept in cloaked in deservedness. I spent fifteen years on the trails, and she spent three months. I had committed myself genuinely and was not passing “thru” casually. Part of me wanted to believe I had earned the right to write.
But I’d already fought that demon and lost. The idea that you must commit your life to authentic living before you write about it is patent bullshit. Melville signed up for four years on a whaling ship but deserted on the Marquesas Islands after eighteen months as an ordinary seaman. Samuel Clemens was a steamboat pilot for four years before the Civil War intruded–thankfully for all of us who cherish Twain’s books–and he had to give it up. Four years proved long enough for him to conjure a misty night of snags and shifting sand bars. Even the shortest experience has vivid and lasting influence. One summer my eight-year-old niece and I went on a memorable hike at dawn, about which she wrote an illustrated account, “The Abandoned Trail.” In the corner, she added her own nod to authenticity: “This relly [sic] happened!”
What I mean to say, what took me a damned long time to learn, is this: You don’t need years of experience to earn the right to write. In fact, when you spend all your time, say, hiking, all you get good at is hiking. Cheryl Strayed spent three months hiking, and then she spent years honing the craft of writing, putting it before every other aspect of her life and going into credit card debt. You don’t have to read the many interviews where she says so outright to know this about Cheryl Strayed. Read “The Love of My Life,” as searing an essay as exists in English. Read Torch, a gorgeous novel about hard grief. Wild isn’t an anomaly, it’s a culmination. Strayed’s motto isn’t “hike like a motherfucker,” it’s “write like a motherfucker.”
I didn’t say all that to every detractor, but I did say this: She wrote a beautiful book. Even when people sidled up to me to suggest she had a better agent, sold out her writing style to suit Hollywood, or got lucky with Oprah, I told them in no uncertain terms: None of that changes the truth. She wrote a beautiful book. Period.
So it was that I’d been defending Strayed for more than a year when I headed to Boston for a writing conference. I’d never been to the city and rarely to the East Coast. I bought clothes and shoes, not for the weather but to play pseudo-professional woman or at least not-in-Levis woman. The convention center had been designed, as I suppose convention centers always are, so we never had to walk outside. Desperate, I found ways around them, ruined my city shoes walking in snowmelt gutters, past wily panhandlers, alone in the dark, just to watch snow swirl in the streetlights, to smell the wind off the river. I stopped to eat cheap sushi in a window seat watching hunched pedestrians in overcoats hustle past on the sidewalk and then I headed back to the convention center.
One reception, then another. Two glasses of wine later, I arrived in a room packed to the hilt to watch Cheryl Strayed walk on stage in a bright red dress, tight around her hips, with deep cleavage showing. She sat, crossed her legs, and smiled lipstick large. I don’t remember what she said, though I am sure she was kind and thoughtful, earnest and edgy at once, the Dear Sugar persona, though we hadn’t yet met Sugar. So I had no excuse, except perhaps the wine, when I was utterly blindsided.
I began to weep, and then sob, alone in the auditorium crowd, snot-faced without tissues. What on earth was my problem? The dress for starters. When I saw her in the red dress, I felt exactly like I do when I go into a dressing room at the mall, like something is expected of me that I am not quite capable of. My near-constant uniform, a plaid shirt and blue jeans, the exact same clothes I wore as a child and what I still wear now, may be authentic woods-wear, but it’s not marketable author-wear. I’d spent years writing about how, on trail crew, I was never quite man enough, but here in the convention center, I suddenly felt not woman enough.
I stood and left. I longed for the wind-blown snow, and the walk back to the hotel calmed me and made me realize that what hurt most was not the highly marketable femininity, nor the fact–shameful to admit it even occurred to me–that Strayed was not terribly physically fit, not even the accumulated exasperation of months of defending one good book when I read a whole lot of them. Her persona on stage made one thing clear: She achieved success because she wanted it, and she was unafraid to make it happen. She had ambition, and I told myself, and I did not. Or not enough. I could buy shoes, fly across the continent, give presentations on the craft of writing, even publish books steadily, one after the next. None of it was enough. Cheryl Strayed was the real thing, and I was not.
Land managers estimate that before 2012 when Wild appeared, three hundred people used to thru-hike the PCT in a year. Last year I heard nearly 3,000, which is odd considering the other trails in our district, miles and miles of them, remain well-maintained and virtually unused. Of course, on those trails no one gives you free stuff. You won’t get a special trail name, but you’re more likely to find solitude. The trailhead may be harder to reach, but the views will undoubtedly be better.
If the view from our post office is any indication, a tenfold increase on the PCT seems about right. On any given summer day, the postmaster stands behind a wall of boxes larger than during Christmas week and longer, too, since this onslaught will last through October. If I want to buy stamps, I’m going to have to wait. The hikers crowd the porch steps of the post office, greedily tearing open the familiar white priority mail boxes, tossing packaging in the bear-proof garbage cans and sorting through baggies of pasta and jerky, fistfuls of energy bars and Snickers, leaving anything excess in a communal take-it-or-leave-it box, heavy on quick oats and dried milk. They know now, better than when they started, what they want. No use carrying anything extraneous.
One thing walking the PCT requires is ambition, not to be something–a trails worker, a lover of nature, or even a writer–but to do something, to achieve a named thing, an observable thing. Maybe that’s why the rest of the trails go untraveled. Solitude is not the goal. Nor are superlative views. Achievement is. On trail crew, we carried heavy packs. We slept soaked and sweated hard. On days so hot firefighters were told to hunker in the shade, we still worked. Was it an achievement? Not really. It was a job; it was regular life. Self-awareness, I suppose, takes longer than 1,100 miles or 2,650. You can be changed on a long trail, true. You can be changed on the subway or in a lounge chair with the right book, changed by changing diapers, changed by chopping through a buried root thick as your forearm, digging a sign post hole with a chainsaw wrench, sleeping in a wet sleeping bag or a crappy motel, but usually you are not changed by regular life.
On my way home from Boston, a wave of gratitude wholly unexpected and near-cliché washed over me as we flew over the winter-white Rockies then the Cascades. So many memories: yellow light warm on velvet heather in spring, huckleberries red as flames cloaked in the first snow of fall, the sweet smell of creosote on bridge timbers, the cedar soft tread underfoot in the forest, the roar of charging snowmelt close while you tighten splintery deck boards to three-eighths cable over the froth, then, finally: glaciers wedged in granite against blue sky as far as you can see, views boot-earned better than the ones from a window seat can ever be. I was wrong to believe I lacked ambition. For many years, more than anything else, I wanted to be out there, bugs and bears and heat and heaving-breath over-fast heart-rate and all.
So I approach the old demon again, humble and insistent. I didn’t hike so I could write about it. I hiked because I love to hike. People say ambition comes from the heart, but I’m not convinced. Ambition follows your body and your body follows your ambition. That’s what people hate about Cheryl Strayed and Hillary Clinton. Ditto for the swarms of PCT hikers. It’s not jealousy of success so much as the near-outrage we feel toward anyone who knows, even for a short time, exactly what she wants, and turns herself, as they say, body-and-soul to the task.
Last weekend my teenaged nephews showed up in town, city kids in decent shape, not mountain climbers by any stretch. They wanted to go up McGregor Mountain, 16 miles round-trip, 8,000 feet elevation gain. I’d planned to spend the day writing, but the sky promised to be clear, the temperature perfect, the views stunning. So we went, boots scuffing on gravel-like-ball-bearings, retinas burning from sun reflecting off snow. We made it to the top, came home with muscles like mush, too exhausted to read, much less to write. On the way back down the dirt road from the trailhead in our pickup, we passed a group of PCT hikers, sweaty in the road dust, heading for the post office. You could tell they wouldn’t mind a ride, but they didn’t bother to hold out a thumb. So we passed them by.