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A young woman in her twenties loses the mother she adores. The death sends her into a downward spiral of divorce, drug use and loss of identity. Her salvation is to go on an eleven hundred mile hike alone. Cheryl Strayed says these circumstances lead her to the Pacific Crest Trail. She hoped the journey would make her into the woman she knew she could become and turn her back into the girl she had once been. Strayed was recently revealed to be the advice columnist “Dear Sugar,” a kind of “Dear Abby” of the digital age. Cheryl Strayed talks about going from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Writer Cheryl Strayed was in her 20s and facing a life crumbling around her, so she decided to go on an 1,100-mile hike alone. She describes the brutal, physical and psychological journey in her new memoir titled "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail." Cheryl Strayed joins me in the studio. You're welcome to be here with us as well. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your email firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Cheryl. It's good to have you here.
MS. CHERYL STRAYEDGood morning. It's an honor to be here.
REHMWell, it's so good to see you. From the prologue, this is an amazing book. I'd like you to read for us from that prologue.
STRAYEDOK, thanks. "The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in Northern California. Moments before, I'd removed my hiking boots, and the left one had fallen into those trees, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled onto it, then skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge. It bounced off a rocky outcropping several feet beneath me before disappearing into the forest canopy below, impossible to retrieve.
STRAYED"I let out a stunned gasp, though I'd been in the wilderness 38 days by then and I'd come to know that anything could happen and that everything would. But that doesn't mean I wasn't shocked when it did. My boot was gone, actually gone. I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though, of course, it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and silver metal fasts.
STRAYED"I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life. I was alone. I was barefoot. I was 26 years old and an orphan, too, an actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I'd told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world. My father left my life when I was six.
STRAYED"My mother died when I was 22. In the wake of her death, my stepfather morphed from the person I considered my dad into a man I only occasionally recognized. My two siblings scattered in their grief, in spite of my efforts to hold us together, until I gave up and scattered as well."
REHMCheryl Strayed reading from the prologue to her new book "Wild." That boot is on the cover, and it's such an extraordinary depiction of the boot you describe in your story. Can you tell me how you prepared yourself for an 1,100-mile journey alone?
STRAYEDWell, what I learned is there's really no way to prepare oneself for something like that. Like many of life's biggest and hardest journeys, the journey teaches you how to be on it. But I did do some preparations. I came across a guide book called the "Pacific Trail: Volume 1, California." I read it religiously, and I did all the things necessary to go on a long distance backpacking trip. I went and bought all the gear I needed, and I packed all the dehydrated foods into boxes that I would mail myself along the way.
STRAYEDAnd I mapped my course. But what happened is, on day one of the trail, I got out there and realized that I hadn't prepared at all, that it was going to be such a physical journey. I'd neglected to think about that. I thought I was really going on a sort of logistical and spiritual quest. And I found that carrying one's self over that rugged terrain for such a distance was an entirely different thing than I'd imagined.
REHMSo when you lost the first boot and threw the second one...
REHM...over the cliff, what did you do?
STRAYEDWell, it turns out that duct tape, I think, is probably the best product ever manufactured by humans. I made myself a pair of boots, fashioning them with these little sort of tiny -- these sports sandals I had. They were just a very kind of flimsy pair of sandals and some socks and some duct tape. And they were actually very comfortable boots. They were, you know, more comfortable, as it turns out, than those Raichle hiking boots.
REHMThat's extraordinary. You probably could've sold them online.
STRAYEDI could. You know, I might just do that.
REHMSo once the whole episode happens with the boots, it must underscore for you how lost you actually feel.
STRAYEDYes. Yes. And I think that there was something that, at that moment, when I am standing out in the wilderness and I am barefoot, and, you know, I think that as much as I didn't want that to happen to me, that was exactly the moment that I was searching for when I decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, that moment where I was literally vulnerable to the universe because, in so many emotional ways, that's how I felt.
STRAYEDIt was that emotional vulnerability that brought me to the decision to hike the trail. And so when I had to actually face it in a literal and physical way, there was something revelatory in that.
REHMIn other words, you felt lost, you knew you were lost, and, when you got to that trail and lost your boots, you were truly where you thought you'd be.
STRAYEDThat's right. And what the trail, in that moment and in so many moments along that journey, is it taught me that I had no choice but to be resilient. And I think that that's, you know, what I needed to learn in every aspect of my life. I think that is part of growing up, that every human goes through that sort of experience. But I was experiencing it in a very dramatic way.
REHMAnd a physical way.
STRAYEDIn a physical way.
REHMTell me about your growing up.
STRAYEDMy growing up, well, I had a wonderful mother, and that's where it all begins. I had a kind of mother who loved me and my siblings with, you know, true abandon. And she loved us the way everyone hopes a mother will.
REHMHow many were there?
STRAYEDI have an older sister and a younger brother. And she had three kids by the age of 26. And she and my father were married until I was about six, and then he left my life. And she was a single mother for the sort of middle period of my childhood. She supported us. She worked as a waitress and in a factory and as an administrative assistant, variety of jobs.
STRAYEDHe did not help out.
STRAYEDRight, yeah. My father wasn't really part of my life after that. And then when I was about 11, my stepfather came into my life, a very wonderful man who was a great father figure to me during my adolescent and teen years. My mother and I both went to college together. My mother had always wanted to go to college. And when I applied to college, the school that accepted me, called the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, wrote a letter saying, as part of your acceptance, your parents and grandparents can take classes for free.
STRAYEDIsn't that amazing?
REHMIsn't that wonderful?
STRAYEDAnd I think they were thinking, you know, the grandmother who would take, like, Introduction to Spanish or something. They didn't imagine my mother, who decided to go full-time, after some negotiation. Of course, I was your basic surly teenager and didn't really like the idea of my mother accompanying me to college. But, nonetheless, we worked out a deal, and she did. We went to the same college, just that first year.
STRAYEDAnd then we both transferred to separate universities of Minnesota in different cities. And we were both in our senior year, so we were about to graduate. And in January of our senior year, she got what she thought was a bad cold. It turned into cancer. We realized it was cancer, and she died seven weeks later. She was only 45 years old.
REHMOh, my. Meanwhile, your stepfather had been supporting the family?
STRAYEDYes. And both my mother and stepfather worked and supported my family. My stepfather was a carpenter. And we lived in rural Northern Minnesota in a house that we built ourselves on 40 acres of land. The house didn't have electricity or running water or indoor plumbing for a good chunk of my teenage years. We didn't get indoor plumbing until I was off at college.
REHMSo, you know, unlike the rest of us who were used to indoor plumbing who perhaps were used to far many more conveniences, you have been accustomed to doing without.
STRAYEDI had. And I think that, you know, I didn't realize this at the time. But in retrospect, I can see that my decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail was very much borne out of my experience having grown up in the wilderness of Northern Minnesota. The wilderness -- you know, after my mother died, my family disintegrated, and that home that I had grown up in was essentially lost to me.
STRAYEDMy stepfather sort of fell away from my siblings and me. And I think I was searching for home, and I knew that I could find it in the wilderness. And so, even though I had never heard of the Pacific Crest Trail, when I decided to hike it, I had just picked up that guide book and had a feeling that it was something I should do. In retrospect, I can see that I was reaching for home.
REHMBut to reach for home in one of the most isolated manners, you possibly could've -- must've seemed bizarre to the people around you.
STRAYEDYou know, I think so. Certainly many of my friends thought that I was a little bit crazy. But it's interesting, just last week, I was talking to one of my oldest friends -- I've known her since I was 19 -- and she said, you were so determined. She said, I didn't even try to talk you out of it because you knew you were going to do it. And so we didn't even question it. And it was interesting for me to hear that reflection of my former self.
REHMCheryl Strayed, she is the author of a new book. It's titled "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail." She's also author of the novel "Torch" and the upcoming "Tiny Beautiful Things." That's a collection of her "Dear Sugar" advice columns from the Rumpus. We'll talk about those a little later in the program. Do join us. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd here's our first comment to you, Cheryl, on our website. Viva wrote, "I just started reading "Wild" this weekend. It's one of the best books I've read in a while. Not only is she brutally honest, but she makes you laugh out loud and want to cry on the next page. The book is so inspiring to a young woman at a crossroads in her life. Just yesterday, I was fretting over a major decision and opened the book to a page where she discussed overcoming fear with power. And it was as if I was meant to read that page."
STRAYEDOh, that's beautiful. Thank you so much.
REHMDid you have a great deal of fear when your mother died?
STRAYEDI was terrified when my mother died, and before she died, too. I wanted my mom to live so desperately.
STRAYEDYes, and forever. And, really, what's interesting is, by the time she got sick, just each day I didn't even dare ask for forever any more. I was asking for another week and then another day and then another hour. And, you know, after she died, you know, that was my biggest fear, you know, that my mother died. And after she died, I really honestly didn't know how to live in the world without her.
REHMWhat was the relationship with her like as you both went through college together?
STRAYEDWell, you know, first of all we set some rules because, of course, I was that teenager who needed...
STRAYED...in a very healthy way, to separate from my mother.
STRAYEDAnd to her great credit, she knew that absolutely. And so we set this rule that if I saw her on campus that she was not to acknowledge me unless I acknowledged her first, which I know sounds terrible now. But we did this, and sometimes I would just walk right past my mother if it didn't seem like the cool moment to say, hey, there's my mom. And, you know, she was 40 at the time, which then I thought, you know, she was ancient.
STRAYEDI'm now 43. I see how young she was. But pretty quickly we did start having lunch once a week. And, you know, my mother, I was always so close to her. We were kindred spirits, and we understood each other and loved each other deeply.
REHMWere you married at the time she died?
STRAYEDI was married at the time she died. I got married very young, and, sort of impulsively, I fell madly in love. And I thought I was the first person to have ever done so. So I married my ex-husband. And, you know, my mother got to see that and be at my wedding. And my ex-husband was with me, you know, really emotionally through that time of my mother's illness and death and that grieving. I'm grateful for that.
REHMHow do you think her death affected the marriage?
STRAYEDI think it affected it profoundly. I mean, I do think that I was too young to get married. And I don't think that that marriage would've lasted, no matter what. But it made it impossible after my mother died. I was really -- I had to remake my life, and I could not do that while dragging someone along with me. And so, you know, my grief spun me eventually into a very self-destructive mode, and my marriage had to go with that.
REHMYou moved to Portland, Ore., and I gather you got into drugs.
STRAYEDI did. You know, during this time of my life, I think I was testing -- I needed to do risky things and things that were painful because I was trying to test myself against some sort of risk or fear. And I was promiscuous. I used heroin. I had gotten involved with a young man who was becoming a heroin addict, and I really sort of started to be pulled down that path with him.
REHMWhat broke that connection?
STRAYEDWell, really, just luck and life. I had very good friends and my ex-husband who pulled me away from that and said, you really must not do this. You know, your life is worth more than that. And I think that that's what I wanted. You know, looking back, I think it was really so much a cry for attention and help.
REHMA cry for attention and for help.
STRAYEDAnd for help, you know, to do -- I needed someone in my life who would stop me from self destructing, and eventually that person had to be me. And the last time I used heroine was just a couple of days before I began my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. And it was really, you know, me setting off into the wilderness, both literal and metaphorical, that allowed me to do that thing of testing myself against something that I saw as dangerous but in a healthy way, in a constructive way.
REHMWhat was your greatest fear as you began on this trek?
STRAYEDMy greatest fear as I began the trek is that I wouldn't be able to finish it or do it. I think at that time, because I had really destroyed my marriage with a good man and my friends were so surprised, really, at so many of the turns I'd taken with heroin and things like this, that I'd lost credibility. I had been somebody who had been really ambitious and positive in my life. And I think that I was afraid I would set out on this journey and find I couldn't do it, and it would be yet another example of a way that I had failed.
REHMBut were you addicted?
STRAYEDI wasn't. I wasn't addicted to heroin. I was going down that path. I was on the way there. I certainly had gotten gathered up in its dark forces and humbled by it.
REHMDid you take drugs along with you on the trail?
STRAYEDNo, I did not. And, you know, I had really -- before I started hiking the PCT, I hadn't been using heroin for about six months. But right before I went out on the trail, I went to Portland and reconnected with this old boyfriend who had originally sort of gotten me involved with heroin. And we just used together one last time. And by then he was a heroin addict.
REHMAnd you could see that very clearly.
STRAYEDI could see that. And I was mortified and saddened and sickened by it. And yet, I mean, and that speaks to the drug's power. I had every intention of not using. But when I was with him, I suddenly did.
REHMSo once you decide you're going to make this trek, getting on this path, weren't you frightened about what you could encounter?
STRAYEDOf course, but the only way I could do this is to say that I was not afraid. And I repeated that to myself every day.
REHMYou told yourself.
STRAYEDI said, I am not afraid, because I knew that if I allowed that narrative into my head, I wouldn't be able to take a step. But, really, what I was shutting out is, you know, all the things that, of course, we would all be afraid of, right: wild animals, rattle snakes, mountain lions, bears, you know, wilderness savvy serial killers, as I say in "Wild," all of the things that could happen out there to a woman alone. But if I let those things rule me, I couldn't have taken that trip, so I decided not to.
REHMSo what did you encounter and how did you deal with it?
STRAYEDI encountered many of the things I feared.
REHMThat's what I thought.
STRAYEDI encountered rattle snakes, which turn out to be a very polite animal.
STRAYEDThey rattle. They always just said, look, I'm here. Rattle, rattle, rattle, and I stepped around them. I encountered bears. That wasn't the first time, though. I had grown up in Northern Minnesota. I had run into bears before. And every time I've run into a bear, they've always done the exact same thing. They just look at me in surprise, turn around and run. I met a couple of people, a couple of men on the trail at one point who felt threatening to me. But otherwise what I mostly met with is an amazing amount of generosity and kindness.
REHMYou met up with some experienced trail walkers who said you were carrying way too much.
STRAYEDThat's right. The first eight days of my trip I did not encounter another human being.
STRAYEDAnd because I had never gone backpacking before I started hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I was out there with this very big pack, but I didn't know that my pack was particularly big. I just thought, this is how it is to be a backpacker.
REHMHow much were you carrying in weight?
STRAYEDI don't know because, surprisingly, I didn't bring a scale out there. I brought everything else, but not a scale. And all I can say is I could not lift my pack an inch on the first day of my hike when I packed it up in this motel room in Mojave, Calif., couldn't lift it even a hair. And, you know, the paradox was I had to get it on my back and carry it over, you know, 1100 miles of a wilderness. And what happened is when I did start to meet other long-distance hikers, they said, that's a really big pack.
STRAYEDI was famous for my big pack.
STRAYEDAnd all the way along, I had a bigger pack than anyone I met out there for the whole summer. But many of them did offer me advice about how to lighten it. And also just I learned -- you know, I started out being someone who'd never gone backpacking. By the end, I was a backpacking expert. And, like I said, it goes back to the beginning. The trail is what teaches you how to hike the trail.
REHMHow much food did you carry initially?
STRAYEDI carried enough food for about two weeks, and that was the norm. You know, generally the resupply stops -- and by resupply stops, it would be sometimes a ranger station, sometimes just a little post office that wasn't even necessarily in a town, or a convenience store that allowed PCT hikers to mail things to it. And then, every once in a while, you would get to an actual town, which would be incredibly exciting.
REHMAnd then stock up again.
STRAYEDRight. Well, no, I never really stocked up in stores. I would have these boxes mailed to me that I had already packed.
STRAYEDSo we're talking about dehydrated food, you know, Power Bars and Cliff bars and, you know, Snickers candy bars and things like this that you would carry in your pack and resupply, dried fruit. And then if there was a store along the way, you know, you would just be ecstatic, and you would buy everything you could.
REHMYou know, I go for long walks, but they're within the city. I think a lot when I go on those walks. What were you thinking?
STRAYEDI thought about everything in my life. And I want to just remind your listeners that I did this trail in the summer of 1995. So this was before we were carrying cell phones or iPods or anything like that around with us. So...
REHMYou had nothing.
STRAYED...I had no electronics or, you know, any equipment such as that. I was really left with my own mind. And so I found myself really, really missing music, and I would think about the lyrics of songs in my head and try to patch them together. I also just -- things that I thought I had forgotten would come into my mind. And I would spend an entire day, you know, working through an old relationship or reliving a happy experience or processing something that was less happy.
STRAYEDI felt that I had never encountered solitude to the extent that I did on the trip. And sometimes it was also incredibly monotonous, and, mentally, I would be so exhausted physically that I would just count my steps. I would count my steps up to 100 and then start over at one just to occupy my mind.
REHMAnd what were you reading at the time?
STRAYEDBooks were everything to me. I always had a book with me. And I -- in each resupply box was another book that I had, you know, packed months before. I read Maria Dermout's "The Ten Thousand Things," which is a really beautiful novel. I read Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," one of my favorite novels ever, Nabokov's "Lolita," Margaret Drabble. I read so many great books.
STRAYEDThere's one book I carried with me the whole way, Adrienne Rich's "The Dream of a Common Language," which is a book of poetry that had come to really be my sacred text. It meant so much to me. And I carried that the whole time.
REHMI would think that boredom would, perhaps to lesser people, drive them home.
STRAYEDA lot of people went home. Usually, it wasn't for the boredom, though sometimes. It was usually for the physical demands of the hike, which are enormous and cannot be overstated.
STRAYEDYes. Excuse me?
STRAYEDOh, OK. Well, you know, first of all, I think it's always hard to walk through challenging terrain, up and down mountains, through all sorts of weather, day after day, carrying anything. But I was carrying a backpack whose nickname was Monster. And it was given that name for good reason. Trust me. But, you know, first, I was just carrying too much weight. Everywhere that my pack made contact with my body I was chafed and blistered and sometimes actually bleeding.
STRAYEDMy feet gave me trouble the whole summer. The boots I had never did really quite fit me right, and I was just constantly in pain. By the end of the summer, I had lost six of my toenails, had just died and fallen off. And so, you know, and that's on top of just the simple act of, you know, just the physical activity essentially doing what amounts to a marathon through the wilderness every day. And then at the end of that, having to get your water at a creek or in a river or a pond, cook your food, set up your tent, all of the logistics that camping demands.
REHMCheryl Strayed, her new book is titled "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Is Strayed your real last name?
STRAYEDStrayed is my real last name. It's my legal last name, but it is a name I gave myself when I got divorced in 1995. I had -- you know, was born with my father's name like most of us are. And when I got married to my first husband, we took on each other's names and hyphenated each other's names. And so when we decided to get divorced, right before I left for the Pacific Crest Trail, I was left with this -- it didn't feel right to go back to the name I had growing up.
STRAYEDAnd so what I decided to do, like many before me who have had to reinvent themselves, it just made all the sense in the world to me that I would find a new last name for myself since I was an orphan in the world, and I was parentless. And I was going to need to mother and father myself for the rest of my life. So I found this word strayed, and I write about it in "Wild" about why that word in particular fit me. And it really does. It's been, what, like, 17 years now that I've had that name. And so it's more real to me than any name I've ever had.
REHMTell me about "Dear Sugar."
STRAYED"Dear Sugar" is the advice column I write for TheRumpus.net. And in it, I answer questions about everything from not just relationships and love, but, you know, money, work, grief, loss. I really will answer any question that comes my way.
REHMHow and why did that begin?
STRAYEDWell, it was just one of those funny things that happens in a writer's life. A friend of mine, Steve Almond, who's a wonderful writer, had been writing the column. And he just decided he didn't really want to do it anymore, and he, out of the blue, asked me if I would like to take it over. I had absolutely no reason to say yes 'cause it was unpaid.
REHMSo you did.
STRAYEDIt was unpaid. I don't have a degree in therapy. You know, I don't really know that I can give advice. So I said sure because I have always trusted my gut as I always, as Sugar, tell people to do. It sounded fun. It sparked my interest. So what happened is I started writing these columns, and I decided that I wasn't going to just, you know, be this person who is perched above telling people what to do. I was really going to use my interest as a storyteller to tell stories from my life by way of helping others make sense of their own lives because books -- that's how I've always learned the most.
STRAYEDIt's those poems I took along the trail or the books I carried with me that have been most healing and most informative. And so I try to do that in the column. It's very much a literary essay. My responses are literary essays really about a deep examination of the problems we all face as humans.
REHMDo you know how many followers you have?
STRAYEDThey're a really loving and, you know, religious group. You know, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands probably.
REHMFabulous. Cheryl Strayed, her new book is titled "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail."
REHMAnd welcome back. Time to open the phones, your questions for Cheryl Strayed, author of "Wild." Let's go to Fort Wayne, Ind. Good morning, Elizabeth, you're on the air.
ELIZABETHHi, good morning, Diane.
ELIZABETHThanks for taking my call.
ELIZABETHMy question for your guest is I'm planning a hike this summer on the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. And a lot of my friends, well, every single one of my friends actually thinks I'm a little bit crazy. I'm going by myself. And, you know, they're like, well, you're going to get eaten by mosquitoes or bears. And, you know, the mosquitoes don't worry me so much, but I am little bit curious about what kind of wildlife, if any, your guest encountered on her trip.
STRAYEDElizabeth, I am so envious.
STRAYEDYou're going to have the time of your life. You know, I hiked every step of the Oregon PCT. It's just beautiful and amazing. And if you're really lucky, you're going to see some wildlife. This is not something to fear. It's something to respect. And every animal that I saw out there, I felt only just so fortunate to see it. So just tell your friends that they've watched too many Hollywood movies and have a great time. You know, and the mosquitoes aren't even that bad.
REHMYeah, but talk about the rattlesnakes, talk about the bears. I mean, you were fortunate enough that the rattlesnakes just made noise and the bears turned the other way.
REHMBut what guidance can you give to Elizabeth?
STRAYEDWell, absolutely you do have to be careful. And, you know, the one thing I am concerned about with people, you know, walking along listening to music or stories or whatnot is that they're not, you know, using -- they're not able to hear and...
REHMNot paying attention.
STRAYED...not being able -- right. And, you know, every animal that I encountered, I heard it first, except maybe one exception when I saw a fox, and I saw it. But, you know, the rattlesnakes rattled, or, you know, the bears you would hear them suddenly crashing, you know, through the woods, you know, and onto the trail. And I would say, you know, you do have to be careful and really keep your, you know, be in touch with all of your senses.
STRAYEDI think that, however, I really do want to return to that idea that, you know, we so often think of it's a sort of us against them situation. We are in their world, and so we need to pay them respect. When I ran into bears, they were as afraid of me as I was of them. They ran away. But I know sometimes not everyone has that encounter. You know, there are rare instances...
STRAYED...where, you know, black bears will be more aggressive, and same with, you know, cougars or mountain lions. So you just need to be aware and make some noise. I sang out loud a lot. I recommend that over that iPod, you know, listening.
REHMThat's interesting. Did you run into any mountain lions?
STRAYEDI didn't. I would see their tracks and their scat. You know, mountain lions, they don't like to be around us very much. You know, so they're very -- I mean, I know many people, I know ranchers in southern Oregon who've lived on that land, you know, for 20 years, and they've never seen a mountain lion. So you would be very lucky if you saw one.
REHMAnd I think you were probably particularly lucky because you didn't have ear plugs in.
REHMYou heard everything that was happening.
STRAYEDThat's right. And I would encourage Elizabeth, too. I mean, I know it's hard in this day and age. I'm the same way. You know, I would probably now bring some of that technology out there with me. And yet I feel really fortunate that I didn't have access to it because so much of what I learned was borne of the silence, the literal silence, and having to deal with my own head. And also just, you know, the wilderness is this silent place, but it's also full of sound. And you can only hear it if you're able to listen.
REHMGood luck to you, Elizabeth.
REHMAnd now to Mark who's in Pensacola, Fla., good morning.
MARKGood morning and what a marvelous trek. I'm from Oregon. I would like to ask you how many hours a day -- and I understand how rough the terrain is. About how many hours a day did you travel? And what time of year did you travel? And the third thing is 'cause at some times a year, you know, there's a very long period of darkness. How did you feel in those three or four hours of darkness before you waited to go to sleep?
STRAYEDWell, it's always nice to hear from a fellow Oregonian. Hello, thanks for calling. You know, my job pretty much every day all day was to cover distance. You know, the thing about long distance backpacking that's so different than just your basic day hike is you really are trying to, you know, cover miles. And, you know, you want to get that next resupply stop as quickly as possible usually.
STRAYEDYou know, every once in a while I'd take a sort of day where I hiked half a day, but, usually, you know, I'd wake up with the sun off -- you know, in the height of summer that would be, you know, 5:15, 5:30, six o'clock, and I'd be on the trail until usually about 6:30 or 7:00. And sleeping, you know, occupying my time in those few hours after dinner was never a problem.
STRAYEDIt turns out when you're walking all day, carrying a pack, you know, I would just immediately make my dinner, and I'd just be sitting there eating my dinner out of this pot. And I would just be sitting in my tent reading whatever book I had. And pretty much as soon as dinner was over, I would just be asleep.
REHMOut of it.
STRAYEDYeah. I mean, I slept so deeply and soundly. And I would often sleep, like, 10 and 11 hours a night because I was just so physically exhausted. So there was never a problem occupying the time.
REHMSo you stopped way before way dark.
STRAYEDYeah, it depended on, you know, sometimes if I was -- you know, sometimes, you would have to keep walking because you needed to get to that water source because you were almost out of water, or, you know, you'd need to get to that creek or whatnot. But, yeah, usually around 6:30 or 7:00 because that would allow me to have an hour or so for dinner, another hour or so reading, and then I would be asleep by 8:30 or 9:00.
REHMAll right. To Arlington, Texas. Good morning, Jose. You're on the air.
JOSEGood morning. I had a quick comment and then question. The comment is that I feel like there's not a whole lot of transition in modern society from adolescence or even young adulthood to adulthood. I guess they're both questions. I wanted to know what were the guest's thoughts on perhaps something like hiking the PCT as a rite of passage, number one.
JOSENumber two, I'm approaching 40, and I'm considering doing it. And I'm wondering, what kind of work should I be doing in preparation for taking on something like this? I'm not in particularly good health. I was in great health in my youth, but I've been living basically a sedentary lifestyle, worked in IT for 20 years. I was recently laid off. And I'm seriously considering doing something like this to sort of reinvent myself.
STRAYEDAll these callers who are thinking of hiking the trail, I just want to hop on the trail with you. I just want to say it's the best -- I mean, short of having my children and marrying my husband, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is, without question, the best thing I ever did. And I would say that if you're considering it, I really encourage you to do it. And, you know, I think that, you know, at 40, it's different than hiking it in my 20s. But, you know, my 20s, you know, I didn't physically prepare myself. I got in shape out on the trail, which, you know, had its own suffering.
STRAYEDBut, you know, things, like, that had never hurt, like, my knees hurt, my joints hurt. And I think going into it -- I'm 43 -- if I went out there now, I think I would have a lot more trouble physically. You know, so I would say it would probably be more important to at least try to do some physical training before you get out there. But I don't think that that should be the thing that stops you. I met, you know, people in their 30s and 40s who went out on the trail, and, you know, they had a lot of weight to lose. And, believe me, they lost it. It's a great weight loss scheme.
STRAYEDBut, you know, I want to go back to this thing that you first brought up, which I think is incredibly important, that rite of passage. And I very much feel like that that's what my hike was to me, that, you know, yes, I was in a very desperate circumstance and grieving hard and all of those things. But even if those things hadn't been true, I think that I needed, you know, something fundamental and powerful and primitive to help me really grow all the way up. And I think we all do, and I think our culture misses that in a big way.
REHMCheryl, how might you have better prepared yourself so that your feet did not blister?
STRAYEDWell, I should've really hiked a lot in those boots before I took them out there and hiked in terrain that mimicked the landscape. Like, you know, I was in Minnesota when I was preparing for my trip. There aren't a whole lot of -- I mean, there aren't any mountains. There's one mountain, Eagle Mountain in northern Minnesota. But, you know, it's a fairly flat terrain comparatively. You know, so I didn't know that those hiking boots would cause me so much trouble on my ascents and descents.
STRAYEDAnd, really, the Pacific Crest Trail is just the trail of up and down, up and down constantly. And so I would've broken the boots in. I would've found the right boots that really fit my feet, which turned out to be kind of hard to fit feet. And I would've trained. You know, I was a waitress, and I was staying up late drinking and cavorting and, you know, doing things that you don't really should do, you know.
REHMYeah, I should say.
STRAYEDI mean, it turned out OK, you know, no regrets.
REHMAll right. To Richland, Wash. Good morning, Cindy.
CINDYHi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
CINDYAnd I wanted to call several times with all of your good shows. Hi, Cheryl.
CINDYI have done the same things, not quite that adventure. I car camped for a month once along Highway 101 and up through the Olympic Peninsula. And I was wondering why you didn't travel with a dog.
STRAYEDWell, you know, that's a great question. Really, it's very difficult to travel with a dog on the Pacific Crest Trail for two reasons. One is that dogs aren't allowed in any of the national parks. At least that was true in 1995. It's probably true still in many of the wildness areas because they're like a threat to the wildlife there. So there would be all these places that you'd have to get off the trail if you had a dog.
STRAYEDHaving said that, I did meet somebody who had a dog for a portion of his hike, and this will tell you how difficult the hike is. The dog had to be sent home because it was too hard for the dog to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. His little feet were bleeding. You know, they made him little shoes, and that still wasn't good enough. And he just was physically having too hard of a time. And when I met that guy and heard about his dog, I thought, OK, what am I doing out here if a dog can't do it? But so that's why I really didn't bring a companion.
REHMAll right. And here's an email from Katie, who says, "I was a wilderness ranger on the PCT in Washington State back in the mid-'90s which was an incredible experience. We were less apprehensive about the wildlife than we were about the various individuals who were potential threats." How did you handle situations with the threatening individuals you ran into?
STRAYEDRight. And I couldn't agree more, you know, and I think it goes back to my comfort in the wilderness having grown up in northern Minnesota. I didn't see the wilderness as a place to fear for the animals. It was the people who I thought might cause me trouble. And, you know, I have to say, I only encountered one pair of men who, you know, said things to me that felt very threatening. And how I handled it is I really tried to sort of remain calm and actually make a sort of escape plan.
STRAYEDIt ended up being that they didn't do me harm. They just made me feel very uncomfortable before they finally left. But it was a very tense scene. And as soon as they left, I packed up my things and ran. You know, I went further up the trail, so if they decided to come back to look for me, I wouldn't be where they expected.
STRAYEDAnd that was frightening, and especially because it came in the place of -- in my hike when I was really feeling. It was quite late in my trip, and I had been met with so much kindness and really had not felt threatened by others on the trail. So it was an important reminder that danger still exists in the world and not all humans are kind.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." At one point in this book, Cheryl, you reflect on your mother's beloved horse, Lady, as you're hiking in the snow. Tell us about Lady and what that memory was.
STRAYEDWhen my parents divorced, my mother got a horse named Lady. And she had always been a horse woman growing up. Horses were her religion, she always said. They were her obsession. They were her greatest passion. And so it meant a lot to her to get this horse. And even though we really couldn't afford a horse, you know, she worked in exchanged for the horse's room and board, and she worked out a deal even to buy the horse. And she bought this gorgeous, gorgeous horse named Lady. And Lady was a part of my life, you know, since I was five or six.
REHMDescribe her for us.
STRAYEDShe was a beautiful 16-hand chestnut mare, and she had this wonderful, elegant gait. And, you know, she was really my mother to me. And so after my mother died, Lady would be -- I would often go out into the pasture and just put my hands on her, and I felt closer to my mom. And I think three years after my mom died, two years, excuse me, after my mom died, Lady was getting very old and very sickly, and we realized that it was really time for her to be put down because she was, you know, ailing and suffering.
STRAYEDAnd various things conspired to make it so my younger brother, Leif, and I actually put her down ourselves. My brother shot Lady. And it was the most painful thing I've ever done in my life and I ever hope to do. And writing about it almost killed me. I spent a week in a cabin in northern Minnesota writing that scene over and over, and crying over and over, grieving that.
REHMTell us about that scene.
STRAYEDWell, what's interesting to me and sad to me is, you know, my brother shot her exactly -- I mean, it went exactly as it should have, in terms of he shot her between the eyes just as he was instructed to do. It wasn't that he did anything wrong. It was that I didn't understand that -- I guess I had a Hollywood version of what it meant to kill an animal. And it moved in slower time than anyone would've hoped.
REHMAnd she didn't die immediately.
STRAYEDShe didn't die right away. Yeah, it took several minutes. And so it was a searing, brutal, devastating time, like nothing else I've ever experienced. And killing Lady felt, in some ways, like killing my mother. Like I said, I would go out and put my hands on her body. And my brother and I were both devastated, I mean, truly devastated. It's the worst thing either one of us has ever done.
REHMI'm so sorry you had to do that and go through that. It was a terrible, terrible scene and one I don't think I'll ever forget because you wrote it so powerfully.
REHMLet's end with an ice cream cone.
STRAYEDThe ice cream cone. We move from my greatest sorrow to one of my greatest delights. At the end of my hike, which I finished in this town of Cascade Locks, Ore., that's perched on the Columbia River, there's a bridge there that crosses the river called the Bridge of the Gods. And I finished my trip when I touched my hand to that bridge.
STRAYEDBut right after that, I walked to this very famous place called the East Wind Drive-In where they make these monumental ice cream cones, and they still do to this day. It's too much ice cream. A normal human can't possibly eat one of their ice cream cones. But me on the last day of my hike, I did. So I went, and I spent my last bit of money on a ginormous ice cream cone. And I sat on a bench and ate it. And my trip was over, and I felt so grateful.
REHMCheryl Strayed and her new book "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail." I'm so glad you were here today.
STRAYEDIt was so much fun, Diane. Thank you.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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