The Reporter and 425 Magazine sat down with world-renowned author Cheryl Strayed when she was recently in Bellevue. The 49-year-old author is best known for her 2012 memoir-turned-movie (starring Reese Witherspoon) “Wild” in which she details her 1995 personal journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. Often called the “PCT,” the trail is more than 2,000 miles and stretches from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. Although Strayed only had enough money to hike California and Oregon, she someday plans to hike the Washington section with her children. Strayed lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, son and daughter.
425 Magazine: When you sat down to write “Wild,” did you have any inkling it could be what it is today?
Strayed: No, you would have to be, I mean really you would have to be an insane person to sit there and be “Wow, everyone’s going to love this, around the world it’s going to be a blockbuster bestseller and Reese Witherspoon’s gonna star in the movie.” I mean I know you can have those fantasies sometimes, but I was a real – I was a seasoned – writer by the time I began writing “Wild.” I began writing “Wild” when I was like 39 or 40, and I had already published a book, I was an established writer. I knew the way the writing world is, the literary world is and I, of course, had gigantic ambitions. I wanted to write the very best book I could possibly write but that’s different than saying I’m gonna write a bestseller. We don’t really have any command over whether something will be a best seller or not. Some writers like to think they do but they don’t.
So what I wrote is, I put everything I could into that book. I gave it everything. I was artistically rigorous, I was emotionally raw and vulnerable. I was fearless when it came to trying to tell as true of a story I possibly could about this experience, really searching my soul and then I put it into the world and hoped for the best. The fact that it so powerfully resonated around the world, across so many divides – gender, culture, race, age, generation, you know – I’ve come to think of it really almost being like it’s not even really about me. It’s like you know in some ways, when people talk to me about “Wild,” they talk to me about themselves. They see their story in me, in mine. And it’s really a powerful experience, it’s really what art is supposed to do, which is connect us – you know that universal thread that connects us. We all know what it means to lose, and to love and to triumph and to struggle and to suffer and those are the connections I was hoping to make, those were my ambitions when I was writing “Wild.” It wasn’t to have Oprah call me up or Reese make a movie, even though those things are fantastic.
Reporter: Is that why you waited to write the book?
Strayed: I waited because, first of all I didn’t know I was ever going to write about the experience, it wasn’t like I was hiking thinking “I’m gonna write a book about this someday” you know? I’m a writer so everything in my life might end up in books someday – I just don’t know. I was really focused when I was hiking the PCT on writing the book that became my first book, my novel “Torch” and, by the time that was published, I had two kids under the age of 2 and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m never gonna have another minute to write again.” Writing the first book almost killed me, there’s no way I’m gonna write a second book.
But I thought maybe I could write an essay about my time on the PCT, I can do 20 pages. And also what happened was for the longest time, I didn’t think, I didn’t want a write a book that was like look at me, I took a long walk, aren’t I great? A lot of people go on long hikes and that’s wonderful but it doesn’t necessarily make a book. And what I wanted to do was really tap into that deeper story that I told in “Wild” and it took some time for me to really grasp what that was and when you hear a writer say, “You have to have something to say,” that’s what we mean. I needed to find those universal threads in my journey that weren’t just about me or my loss or about my hike but were about the journeys that we all go on in our lives.
425 Magazine: What was your reaction to “Wild” being featured on the “Gilmore Girls” revival?
Strayed: So, I’m 49 so I’m just old enough so that when “Gilmore Girls” came out, most people my age weren’t watching it. I was too cool to even have a television during those years so but the generation right behind me watched it. So, I was aware that this was a show and then I had a daughter, I was like, “I know, I’ll wait until she’s like a sort of pre-teen and we can watch this together.”
And so we had just started watching season 1 of “Gilmore Girls” when this revival came out and I saw on Twitter that there was a shot of the mom reading “Wild” by the poolside and I was like, “Oh that’s sweet, there’s a ‘Wild’ sighting,” but there have been “Wild” sightings in various movies and TV shows so it was thrilling, but it was like, you know, that’s nice but I didn’t realize it was part of the storyline.
So, then my daughter and I were like, “Well, do we watch the reboot now or do we watch every season of ‘Gilmore Girls’ before we watch the reboot?” But, everyone was talking about the reboot, so we’re like let’s just skip ahead and watch that and we’ll go back to season 1. So, we’re watching it and suddenly it’s just like right before our eyes. [Character Lorelai Gilmore] like “I’m gonna do a ‘Wild,’ you know that book?” and she goes on the trail and it’s like the “book or the movie.” I just almost fell off the couch, this is so amazing. This is like this iconic show is talking about my book and it was very moving I think it made me cry. I felt so honored and I think it made me cry in particular because my daughter who has, both my kids, my son and my daughter, have observed so many amazing things happen to the book, and to me because of the book, but there was something about that that really hit home with my daughter, that like, “OK this is my mom,” you know? And all of her friends were like, “Your mom was on ‘Gilmore Girls,’ your mom!” It felt like a new way in which I felt like the book had permeated the culture, which was really deeply flattering. And there’s also something that’s incredibly moving about this feminist writer, this woman who was a trailblazer and made this feminist show, doing an homage to me, also a feminist writer who blazed a different kind of trail.
Reporter: I’ve read some blog posts about how a type of masculine “bro” culture has infiltrated hiking on the PCT. And it has made it hard for some female solo hikers to do exactly what you did. Did you experience that? If so, do you have any tips?
Strayed: Well, we live in a masculine “bro” culture off the trail. So you know, that’s interesting. Maybe I was a little safer because there were hardly any “bros.”
I mean the trails have become really crowded and the world has changed in so many ways. The trail I wrote about is in some ways unchanged and in some ways it doesn’t exist anymore and this is because the world has changed. The world without the internet, the world without cell phones. When I was on the PCT, the only way to reach me was to physically come and find me. When I would come to a road, I could hitch hike into town and call somebody on a pay phone. That was it. There were not cellphones or the internet. Well the internet existed in ‘95 but nobody was on it. I didn’t even know what it was. I’d heard about it but it wasn’t a functional thing.
So there was that sense of aloneness. And fewer people were on the trail because of it. It’s so much easier to find out information about the trail [now] and I think it makes it easier to go hike it. It’s still hard, you still have to cover those miles and it’s more accessible, so that’s a good thing I think, but what that means is a wider range of people are attracted to it for a wider range of reasons and it doesn’t surprise me that women would run into men who are sexually predatory but this has always been true. I haven’t hiked long distances on the PCT for the last few years so I can’t speak to the “bro” culture firsthand but I can only say it doesn’t surprise me and it makes me sad. But I think the answer is not to say I’m gonna go hike alone, but actually the opposite, to do more of that. To make that a space where women are showing up and asserting their right to be on that trail.
Reporter: Do you regret not hiking the Washington section?
Strayed: I wish that I’d had – the reason I didn’t hike the whole trail is I didn’t have enough money to fund a hike for … it was really just very practical. It takes about five-and-a-half months to hike the whole trail and I had enough money to hike about three months. So that’s what I did. So regrets? It was one of those things that I just couldn’t do it. I finished the trip with 20 cents. And I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way, I mean literally I had 20 cents. I had no credit cards, I had nothing, I had a student loan debt that I paid off on my 44th birthday.
So yeah, I would love to hike the Washington section of the PCT and I plan to do it with my kids someday. I could lead a whole contingent of people.