Jun 25 2012
When I was ten, I decided I would never run a marathon. This may sound like a no-brainer for most people, but most people didn’t grow up in a family whose parents had medals and race posters from their four or five 26.2-milers a piece decorating the walls of their house. I eschewed the expectation that I would follow in their 26.2-mile-long footsteps for almost as long as I can remember. Somehow, I knew I would have to find my own ways to be brave.
My older sister is different. She’d run her first marathon by the time she was 25. And when she and her husband turned 30 last year, they decided that to celebrate, they would hike the Appalachian Trail.
The pleasures of armchair travel are many. Reading can not only take you to the places you long to go, but into experiences you never in your life would try outside of the covers of a book. Perhaps it’s the nature of the middle child to live vicariously through a more adventuresome older sibling. Maybe this ability to imagine myself into my sister’s shoes is what made me into such an avid armchair traveler.
And maybe it was the admiring little sister in my that allowed me to immediately empathize with blister stories and tales of unbearable desert heat as I lay sweating comfortably in my apartment during the Boston heat wave last week with a fan oscillating a few feet away, reading Cheryl Strayed’s new book Wild, a travel memoir about her grueling emotional and physical journey along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Cheryl Strayed is brave. But at the end of a harrowing day of solo encounters with the wilds of California, she inevitably crawls into her tent and opens a book, escaping from the challenges of her journey by way of someone else’s narrative. Each night, she burns the pages she read in her campfire, lightening her load. If I couldn’t identify with the aching muscles and blackened toenails of her hike, I understood this impulse (not the impulse to burn the books, but the impulse to read them). I also saw its influence in the very craft of her writing, in Strayed’s remarkable ability to tell her own dramatic story.
There are many ways a book can find you. Yesterday a customer asked at the information desk not for Wild, but for Wildwood, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists fantastical young adult novel. As soon as I handed him the book, the customer began to flip through the pages, stopping midway with a cry of recognition. He had paused at an illustration by Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis, of a badger pulling a rickshaw. “There it is!” he cried, explaining that he had bought this print at an art show a month ago for its own merits, ignorant of the fact that there was a book behind it. Now he was eager to learn just who this badger pulling a rickshaw was.
Determining just who she is, finding a story to match the image of herself she once had before her mother’s death, is at the heart of Strayed’s journey through the wilds of the PCT. Even her name has changed since the loss of her mother, several affairs, a heroin addiction, and a divorce broke her from the person she thought she was. Strayed chose her name from a dictionary. “Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord:” she writes, “to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress. I had diverged, digressed, wandered and become wild.”
As I contemplated the importance of names in the formation of our stories, I realized that it was the very name of Strayed’s book that had compelled me to read Wild. The week before, my sister had been visiting from overseas to introduce me to my nephew, born three months ago in Bangkok, just shy of nine months after the completion of her Appalachian hike. His name is Wilder.
Appalachian Trail, Book Reviews, Carson Ellis, Cheryl Strayed, Colin Meloy, General, marathons, Pacific Crest Trail, Travel, Wild, Wildwood