Good writers can be divided into two categories: recounters and listeners. Recounters make you want to hear their story. Listeners make you feel like you're reading your own. Cheryl Strayed is a listener. Her immensely popular advice column, "Dear Sugar," resounds with empathy, wisdom and universal positive regard. Reading her gentle words, you often feel as though you've been poked in a sensitive spot, as though Strayed has been sifting through the contents of your soul and somehow loves you anyway. Her new book, Wild, is an account of her 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest trail. If Strayed is an angel, Wild is the story of how she earned her wings.
Strayed sets off on the trail at the age of 26, still reeling from the death of her mother, a gruesome divorce and a passionate affair with intravenous heroin. With absolutely no experience backpacking, inadequate gear and only "the world's loudest whistle" to protect her from predators, it's a wonder she survived to tell her story. If the success of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love is any indication, audiences are hungry for autobiographies of women resolving existential dilemmas through unconventional journeys. Wild taps into that hunger. Strayed narrates practically every step, missing toenail, good Samaritan, menstrual cycle, trail-side romance and MRE meal, along with each ensuing epiphany. It's an amazing accomplishment. Why isn't it a better story?
It may be that Strayed is simply writing outside of her comfort zone. She's in her element when she's telling our own lives back to us, but the detailed epic that is Wild somehow feels forced.
Listeners can inspire. The real value of their stories is in how we want to change our own lives once we emerge from them. Wild's appeal is in the concept of taking on a challenge so large that you can't help but be changed by it. No one begrudges Strayed the journey. We're glad she took it and brought back its wisdom. Inspiring? Sure. But like the hike itself, a bit of a trudge.