Author of ‘Wild’ Cheryl Strayed at National Geographic

Ever been lost and then found? Well apparently everyone experiences this according to Cheryl Strayed of the New York Times memoir bestseller Wild.

Strayed talked to a sold out crowd, comprising mainly of women, at the National Geographic Wednesday night about her journey of self-discovery, chronicled in her book Wild.

Cheryl Strayed. Photo by Joni Kabana.
Cheryl Strayed. Photo by Joni Kabana.

Wild is in the incredibly popular book that spawned a movie by the same name starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. The movie’s stars, Witherspoon and Dern were nominated for Academy Awards. The movie’s screenplay was adapted by highly acclaimed Nick Hornby. Strayed is a certifiable celebrity now from the success of her book. She attended the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards (and met George Clooney). She travels the world giving book workshops and was featured on Oprah.

Strayed reached bottom after her mom suddenly died from cancer and her marriage crumbled. She turned to heroin and casual sex to escape the pain, but she realized it was the wrong direction. She had day hiked before, but had never done a 1,000 mile hike before. After seeing a hiking book at REI describing the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) she decided to hike the trail. On the trail she learned to grieve her mom’s death and reclaim her life.

Strayed joked with the audience, “I love to make people cry.” She asked the audience if her book made anyone cry and lots of hands shot up.

Strayed met her husband eight days after her hike ended. He kept telling her to write about her hike, but she didn’t know what she would write about. She needed to develop consciousness on her journey which took a while. In 2006 she wrote her novel Torch and had two kids under the age of two by 2008. She started to write an essay on her hike and kept going in deeper like quicksand. She wrote about her pack being so heavy and how she couldn’t lift it and she quickly realized she had a book on her hands. It was a moment of truth. Calling her pack a monster is such a metaphor that in a piece of fiction it would have been too obvious, but it was what she called it in real life. Strayed smiled at the audience, “Truth is stranger than fiction!” She recalled how her journey ended at the “Bridge of the Gods.” Strayed repeated, “So many metaphors! The Bridge of the Gods really does exist, you can go see it! Anyone here seen it?” Audiences’ hands raised.

Next she kept a journal on the trail, especially on the food she ate as she was starving most of the time. She laughed and said her journal was mainly about “My feet hurting.” Her journal was her companion. She wrote down conversations she had on the trail. She even wrote down what was in the hobo care package while eating it. She would write down in her journal she saw yellow flowers, but she shared, “I would go back and research what kind of flowers they were to sound smarter.” She sought out people from the trail to obtain their recollections. Many of them remembered things the same way she did, especially the food. She stayed friends with the Three Young Bucks, including Rick who she had sexual tension with. She later asked Rick via email if he felt the same sexual tension she felt and he immediately responded with a long email explaining he had the same feelings. Her husband joked, “Are you all going to go to couples therapy now?”

Strayed created the book through two ways. One way was how she included the hike throughout the whole book in every chapter and how her stories intertwined which explained what brought her to the hike. She shared, “All chapters needed to be on the PCT.” The back story is out of order and she let it rise organically as how memory works. It was hard for her to take things out. She joked her next book will be about how she survived a bear attack.

She learned to embrace fear before her PCT hike. She made sure she wasn’t afraid before going on the hike. Before the hike she had traveled a lot with her truck. She traveled a lot throughout the American West. She would sleep alone in her truck and hiked by herself in Arizona. She learned she had nothing to fear. She would repeat to herself over and over again, “I’m not afraid” when on the PCT and it worked. Strayed revealed, “The voices in our head are powerful. There is the voice of doom versus reason. It’s true of writing too.” She would tell herself on the PCT, “What’s the worst thing that could happen? I could die by a bear attack? Well that would be a cool way to die!” Strayed imagined her obituary having her picture being replaced by Reese Witherspoon (the audience laughed).

Strayed loves solitude. From solitude she learns a lot. “I like being alone. I didn’t expect to be so alone on the hike. Day hikes are a lot different than long distance hikes!” The first eight days she saw no one on the PCT. She regularly went 2-3 days without seeing anyone. She enjoyed being along with her thoughts. She felt the presence of all living things. “I felt part of nature. I needed to feel connected. I ran into my life. I created my own rite of passage.” Solitude helped her discover her weaknesses and her strengths.

The moderator asked Strayed, “What is your weakness? She seemed a little taken aback by the question, but quickly recovered. “My weakness is I couldn’t accept the truth that I could survive without my mom. It felt like a betrayal. I will always miss her. I had to give myself permission to enjoy my life.”

She believes the trail redefined home for her. She lost her mom, her siblings went adrift, and she lost touch with her stepdad. Her house she grew up with went away as well. “The trail felt like home to me. It was an emotional journey.” She grew up with a love of the land as her family had lived on a remote farm in Minnesota. Strayed recalled saying to a deer on the trail, “You’re safe in this world,” and shared that her comment, about being safe in the world, resonated with a lot of abused kids who have shared that with her.

Strayed believes we all have a lot bizarrely in common. She loves the stories she hears from the audience, at book signings and at her writing workshops. She claimed she could write another book based on what stories she hears from all the people she meets. She wrote Wild using raw material as a universal way of showing being human. Strayed cried writing the book almost everyday as she had to emotionally inhabit the pages. The divorce scene made her cry, but she realizes it was the right decision to get divorced. During the scenes where her mom dies is still devastating for her and it still makes her sad, while with the passage of time other parts of her life aren’t so sad anymore. However, Strayed did become unglued during the shooting of the movie scene of Laura Dern, who played her mom, is fully embraced by Strayed’s daughter Bobbi. Everyone on the movie set was crying.

Interestingly enough she didn’t believe her hike on the Pacific Crest Trailed changed her, it was going to college that the world opened for her. At college she was exposed to a likeminded people, education, going to museums, opportunities, and reading.

Strayed closed her talk with sharing her purpose of life is to “love and be loved.” After her talk she spent about two hours signing her books for people. She was super engaging and friendly. The evening was insightful, funny and poignant. I definitely recommend seeing her if she comes to a town nearby.

Wild with Cheryl Strayed was March 12, 2015 at the National Geographic – 1145 17th Street, NW, in Washington, DC for one night only. Please check out this link for future events at National Geographic.

Cheryl Strayed talk:

Cast of Wild talks:

Cheryl Strayed on Oprah: