Strayed’s memoir Wild explores the author’s descent and rise after the death of her mother. This was the event that set a girl who was moored to her mother adrift, to discover that she needed to stand on her own. After beginning to spiral out of control with extramarital affairs and flirting with heroin, she decides to take an impulsive leap into self-discovery by hiking the Pacific Coast Trail.
Strayed’s main desire on the trail seems to be the desire to find herself, a way of being herself without the anchor of her family, whether the one she had by birth or the one she had by marriage. She’s lost, and holding on to familiar things on the sinking ship of her life, and it seems to me she needed to get away from all of it to find her own way. She’s as woefully unprepared for the PCT as she was for adulthood, and overcoming obstacles on the trail became the metaphor for her life. As she learned to survive on the trail, she began to learn to survive in her mind as well, learning to survive when things don’t go the way you imagined. She starts her first hike on the PCT without experience or proper preparation- she hadn’t broken in her too-small shoes, so discovered on the trail that her shoes would break her, claiming 8 toenails along the way. She learned to trust strangers, even when at times it seemed that she was placing herself into exceptionally precarious situations for a single woman on the PCT. But through her perseverance, desperation, and the dumb luck that all of us enjoy if we can see it, she conquers the obstacles and realizes she just has to determine which way to go in order for everything to work out. Like the saying goes, “Aim for nothing and you hit it every time.” It seems to me what strayed found on the trail was her compass- the one made (one of my college professors so eloquently put it) “where hope bumps up against despair.” That’s where all of our stories begin.
The inciting incident for me was certainly my “Fuck You” prayer. I haven’t written about it here in this class because I wrote about it in another and wanted to not recycle existing writing. (Prof-You can find a copy here if interested- just re-read and my writing has definitely improved!.) All my life I just wanted a safe place, a place that felt like I wouldn’t get kicked out. Maybe that’s my fault, I’m not sure. I’m realizing a lot about my personality type I didn’t know before, and it’s certainly helping. I am “brash and hopeful” as one songwriter put it, but I’ve always been involved in families and organizations that were very controlling, dictatorial, and structured. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of freedom- totally unfettered curiosity that helps you discover your authentic self. It’s this- authenticity- that I desire most, but most of my family and even my spiritual life was about putting up a facade. I think I’m realizing now that most people are heavily invested in their facades, and I had learned to sure up mine as well over the years… but once they begin to crack, facades always break. The difference between this being simply traumatic and lifechanging vs devastating is the tenacity to move forward.
My dad was very invested in his facade, and my mother in hers. My dad built his with false optimism that belied his fears, and my mom with emotions and a gullibility to feed them. My involvement with the church revealed many people who maintained facades, and often forced them onto others with a structure of shame and fear that, truth be told, I also invested and participated in for years. Only when I started to see the masks, the contradictions, and the unintended consequences that were so much worse than the dangers these beliefs tried to protect from, did I start to move on myself, and started poking at the house of cards I lived in.
But I needed it. I needed to be true, and authentic. That’s my core motivation- to find and finally be, as well as help others find and finally be, their authentic selves.
So through doubts, questions, and conflicts coming to a peak when I caught my ex-wife committing adultery in our bed with the children home. I was shattered, as was my faith, and I was at the crossroads of hope and despair. I had to just sit there and cry myself to death at the crossroads, starving for meaning and joy… or I could move forward into deeper despair or hope. Moving into despair seemed stupid since I was already sitting in it and sitting is better than moving if you’ll end up in the same place anyway, so it seemed like the only real option was sitting forever in despair and staring down that road, or moving forward into hope.
So, fuck it… I’m moving forward.