I confess to being a fan of travel books. Winter lasts a long time in St. John’s and there is nothing finer than sitting by a roaring fire with a glass of something good to hand, while the snow piles up, and reading about sweating it out in the jungle or lolling about in a kayak on a sunny ocean. Conversely, when travelling to warm places, I like to read about cold ones. I recall shivering on a blistering Honduran beach while reading The Worst Journey in the World about the ill-fated Scott Antarctic mission.
The best travel books are more than the journey described (miles logged, calories consumed, summits reached). They describe the destinations encountered but more importantly they discuss the journey within, the epiphanies that occur when we open ourselves to new places and experiences and realize how rewarding a tough slog can be.
Travel, and by extension, travel books, take us outside of our everyday selves and places. It can be a painful experience (bugs, snakes and heat exhaustion in the Congo) or a luxurious one (private rail coach with a chef and butler, from Chicago to San Francisco) but getting there is seldom the point. Good travel books should be informative, evocative and transporting. They make you feel like you can smell the jungle after a big rain or you’re freezing your toes off in Antarctica.
Cheryl Strayed delivers with Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I devoured this book over the course of a very snowy Sunday. It grabbed me by the lapels from the prologue and hauled me over 1,100 miles of mountains. Wild spares no punches, unblinkingly detailing the author’s grief at the death of her mother, the dissolution of her marriage, the splintering of her family, her descent into heroin use and her search for redemption, of sorts. It is raw in parts, with diction to match; in others, an almost poetic cadence carries us along.
The Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, spans 2,663 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian through nine mountain ranges. Strayed starts her journey in Mojave, California in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains carrying a massive load, both the knapsack she comes to dub “Monster,” and the psychological baggage from the previous four-and-a-half years.
Over the course of 100 days, we accompany the author through searing heat and thirst, to freezing under high elevation snow, through rattlesnakes, mountain lions and bears, to countless blisters and her long suffering toenails. Anyone who’s done any long distance hiking will either be reminded of all the pain and discomfort and be glad they are not in her agony-inducing boots, or immediately want to put on the pack and set off.
Her initial struggles with fitness, equipment failure and fatigue lead to revelations. As it progresses, this journey grows meditative. As she humps the miles, the going gets harder and more intense, but her mental and physical strength grow with every day on the trail.
Her encounters with wildlife (of the two and four-legged varieties) will at times make you laugh and at times grip the book in whiteknuckled fear. You’ll meet an array of “trail angels” in real time, and members of her family via flashbacks. This book is a meditation on love and happiness, pain and pleasure, sadness and grief, literature and writing and Snapple lemonade. And walking.
This book has an Oprah Book club sticker on it. Love the Club or hate the notion–I loved the book. It exhilarated me, made me feel thankful. When I ultimately arrived at the final page, I was grateful for having started the journey.