Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I just finished reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed and for the space of three days I was transported to the Pacific Crest Trail. This isn't the usual memoir about someone who loves to explore, has the requisite skill set, and then sets out. Cheryl knows nothing about backpacking nor does she know too much about how to select adequate boots for a 1,100 mile trek.

In August the Vail Daily reported that Jim Ellison, a former twenty-year marine, had cycled 71,000 miles and planned to continue until all the U.S. troops are brought home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

On January 10, 2013 a writer, Paul Salopek, began a long walk that will take him from a small Ethiopian village in Africa—through the Middle East, then across Asia—to Alaska, down the western United States—then through Central America. He'll end up in Chile. The total miles— over 21,000.

According to newspaper reports he's replicating our ancestors who made the migration over a 50,000 year span of time. One of his sponsors, National Geographic, dubbed the expedition: Out of Eden. He'll write one long article for them a year and every 100 miles he'll write an update. Paul is not someone for whom writing is a secondary activity—he's a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

He told the Associated Press that "Often the places that we fly over or drive through, they aren't just untold stories, but they are also the connective tissues between the stories of the day."

Paul Salopek has specific plans—walk with local people, learn new languages. He hopes that people will want to read his long pieces. We live in a society filled with people who read their information in small bites. Paul's stories will be long-form journalism and the story will unfold slowly—episode by episode.

Cheryl had no sponsor. She had a friend. Before leaving on her trip Cheryl made up boxes with supplies for each leg of the trip—a clean shirt, new socks, supplies for her feet, a twenty-dollar bill, and always a book. Lisa sent each of these boxes ahead to the drop off points.

Paul is following the migration trail for an estimated 30 million steps over seven years. According to the December 2, 2012 Harvard Gazette Paul's project was "Incubated at Harvard where he was the inaugural visiting Nieman Fellow."

"This walk" he said,"is about the poetry of hidden connections that I missed as a writer and foreign correspondent."

In order to keep his stories coming every 100 miles all the latest technology will be employed—everything from video cameras to satellite phone. He'll use web posts and blogging to tell his stories.

Cheryl's mother dies of lung cancer and Cheryl's world falls apart. She drops out of college, her marriage disintegrates, and indiscriminate sex and heroin can't pull her out of the place of deep sadness.

Four years after her mother's death she sees a pamphlet about the Pacific Crest trail. At the age of twenty-six she's working as a waitress, still at odds with life and she concludes that she needs to do something. That something is to hike the trial—alone from the Mojave Desert to Washington State.

It's 1995. She sets out with a backpack so heavy that she can barely lift its weight and dubs it the Monster. Along the way she loses toe nails and chafes her body raw where the backpack straps rub against her skin.

Despite the weight the box that Lisa sends ahead always contains a book. When she finishes pages she tears them out and burns them to lighten the load.

Her accommodation— a small tent. Her security system: a large loud whistle and a Swiss Army knife. Along the way she encounters unbelievable physical difficulties, hunger, and other hikers. Only once is she really terrified of two hunters she meets who have strayed off their trail.

When she arrives at her final destination she's different—internally and externally. She doesn't write her story upon her arrival in Portland—in fact the story isn't written until she's forty—married with two children. There was no blog, no web presence while on the trail.

When Cheryl reaches the end of her trek she sits by a river and writes:

On the other side of the river, I let myself think And something inside of me released

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