Cheryl Strayed’s Independence and The Pacific Crest Trail

By Vanessa Titz

Cheryl Strayed is a woman who lost her mother and had intended to destroy herself as a consequence of her grief. In order to prevent further self-destructive, damaging deeds, which she would regret, and having already betrayed her husband frequently and consumed dangerous drugs, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Critics of her autobiography, Wild, believe that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail did not change her and that her decision was reckless. Those who find her reckless fail to perceive her bravery in the face of angers and hardships–a transformation this essay will explore.

Her decision to hike does seem reckless when she does not prepare herself, for example, by attending a class for hikers. Strayed takes a heavy knapsack, the weight of which she compares to a Volkswagen Beetle. Her comparison reveals her awareness of the heavy weight but her strong will to endure the weight of the knapsack shows not only her recklessness to the risk of damaging her spine but also her will to make a change within herself, without any help from outside. Her strong determination to change helps her cope with her grief as well as complete her demands on herself, e.g. to become the person she wants to be and to gain her independence from her mother, men and society through hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

According to Kam, a book reviewer who opposes Strayed’s idea of hiking, “[t]he concept of the wilderness as a recuperative force is offset by the extent to which it is depicted as life threatening: interpretation of […] Strayed’s respective journeys range from admiration for [her] independent spirit to condemnation for solipsistic stupidity.” I argue that Strayed’s hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail is not a “solipsistic stupidity”, which means to be reckless by being self-centered, since the hike on the Pacific Crest Trail helps her to recover from her grief and to become independent.

Another reviewer of the autobiography, an Amazon reviewer, Garner, implies that Strayed does become tougher in a psychological as well as in a physical way. He refers to the scenes in which she runs out of water and has dangerous encounters with men and wild animals. Those scenes show Strayed’s determination to continue the hike, even when her life is at risk. So, I concede like Garner, that she becomes tougher because the physical pain she suffers outweighs her psychological pain of loss, which seemed to her at first more painful and almost lead her to self-destruction.

In the scene where she has no water, Strayed acknowledges that the physical pain of her body and her need to drink are more important than her psychological pain of loss, although she expected the opposite. So, the hiking process forces her to focus on reality and on survival, through her own strength. Strayed’s lamenting about her physical and mental pain could certainly be regarded as a weakness if she had focused only on pitying herself but this is not the case. Her proven perseverance makes her strong. Hence, there are no personal obstacles which can prevent her from becoming independent.

In the case of becoming independent, Garner refers to two men who threaten Strayed on the trail, apparently resenting her greater knowledge of water purification devices–resenting her strength as well as resenting their own need for advice. In this scene, these men are looking for drinkable water and she offers her purifier to them, which they do not understand how to use. Strayed lectures them: “you have to give it some muscle […] you weren’t supposed to let the tube go into the mud like that […] you were supposed to keep it up in the water” (Strayed, 284). By using the phrase “supposed to” repetitively, one can notice that she is angry at these men because their carelessness is destroying her purifier. Moreover, instead of apologizing, these men keep on complaining to her demanding to drink. Although Strayed does not know their true intentions, she has the courage to lecture them and this reveals her newly found strength. Some might argue at this point that she is reckless for offending their manliness, an act that could and actually did turn them against her. These men obviously feel inferior because they are being lectured by a woman and compensate for this feeling by implying that they will rape her. Through showing her that they actually have power over her, such as a hunter has over a prey, they believe that will restore their manhood. They want to show Strayed that she is inferior to them by making sexist remarks about her: “she’s got a really nice figure, don’t she? […] Healthy, with some soft curves. Just the kind I like” (Strayed, 285). With these sexist remarks, these men want to show that she is an object they can possess.

In this moment, Strayed does not panic but tries to cope with the situation through strategy. Her strategy is to simply walk away and hide her fear. She explains: “it was as if I’d finally come across a mountain lion and I’d remembered, against all instinct, not to run. Not to incite him with my fast motions or antagonize him with my anger or arouse him with fear” (Strayed, 286). With this scene, Strayed proves that she does not need anyone to protect her because she is not helpless but strong and sharp. By learning how to behave in a dangerous situation, she gains independence. It is questionable whether she would have had enough physical strength to protect herself from these two men together, therefore her behavior shows that she is not always reckless as some reviewers might indicate. Furthermore, the scene illuminates her newly gained strength, in a psychological way, in being able to make quick, life-depending decisions, and in a physical way in having self-sufficient strength, more strength than these two men, to be able to use the purifier.

Another important scene to which Garner refers, is the moment when she meets a red fox. She experiences the red fox as a reincarnation of her mother and calls after it several times, “Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!” (Strayed,144). At first the fox is interested in her but like her mother, it leaves her and she calls desperately after it, begging it to stay because it is her only companion in the wilderness. At first glance, Strayed seems to be trapped by her grief and does not show any signs of recovery. In an interview with the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), Strayed explains this scene by stating that she felt “alone”, “uncertain” and “afraid” but she also felt “strength” when she encountered the red fox. So, on the one hand, the appearance of the fox makes her grief over the loss of her mother resurface. But on the other hand, the encounter also reminds her that she still has the wild animals as companions and that many of them trust her—when she has not trusted herself. This knowledge that she is not alone gives her the strength to continue walking and to continue her quest.

One of the reviewers, an Amazon reader, Deb, does not see any connection between Strayed’s experiences of the Pacific Crest Trail hiking and her healing process. I disagree and say that her growth was mostly influenced by her tough experiences on the trail as well as the beauty of nature, which helped her to forget the psychological and physical pain she was experiencing. Strayed also confirms the impact the beauty had on her growth by stating:

“In moments amongst my various agonies, I noticed the beauty that surrounded me, the wonder of things both small and large: the color of a desert flower that brushed against me on the trail or the grand sweep of the sky as the sun faded over the mountains. I was in the midst of such a reverie when I skidded on pebbles and fell” (Strayed, 67)

The beauty she encounters is like an unlimited resource which gives her strength and helps her to stay determined and to keep walking. The effect of this resource which evokes positive energy in her and which she knows from her childhood, is stronger than her feelings of misery. Especially in her times of suffering, her perception of nature becomes more focused and even overwhelms her emotionally and fills her with positive feelings that help her to continue her will.

Furthermore, Strayed’s experiences of the Pacific Crest Trail are reminding her of the childhood experiences she made in nature, thus she now recognizes as it her “home” and where she feels welcomed and comfortable. These feelings allow her to find psychological peace because she has found a place where she belongs and is not “strayed”, straying from save true path anymore, as her name implies.

Another Amazon reviewer, Deka, criticizes Strayed for not making any psychological changes while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and for only wanting attention from the reader for her poor fate. This comment fails to perceive that there is enough proof of her growth. For instance, by being confronted with memories of her mother, Strayed recognizes the importance of her becoming dependent on no one but herself. She had relied on her mother her whole life until her mother’s death. By gaining independence, Strayed gives up her role of being a child and finally takes on the role of an adult.

Strayed’s maturity development can be seen when she meets a deer. Her behavior here alters drastically in contrast to the fox scene. Instead of begging the deer to stay, Strayed accepts that for her growth, it is necessary for her to be alone on the journey. Strayed is not afraid of the deer and tells it that it is safe in “this world”, in the meaning of her being also safe in the world of the Pacific Crest Trail and all the unknown obstacles that come along with it.

The deer is the way Strayed was at the time when she encountered the fox. She was afraid of it just as the deer is afraid of her in this scene. The deer represents Strayed just as the fox represents her mother and this shows the deep connection between her and the world she now finds herself in. Hence, these animals are no longer strangers to her; there is a familiarity in the connection they have with one another. This bonding takes her fear of being unprotected in the wild and gives her strength, in the meaning of mental support, the kind she received from her mother Bobbi before. With that insight, Strayed is becoming a self-sufficient woman who recognizes that she can be on her own, without her parents.

Nevertheless, other Amazon reviewers of Strayed’s autobiography, Keith and Reinhold, remain unconvinced of Strayed’s new independence and of the correction of her morals. They perceive her as being too self-centered. I believe they see a contradiction between Strayed’s claim of independence and her possession of condoms, a possible wish to have sex out on the trail. Strayed does show improvement in that her interest is not to have sex with every man on the Pacific Crest Trail but only with Jonathan, a man to whom she is attracted.       

Jonathan is the first man in a long time with whom she experiences the normal first steps of a romantic relationship, such as having a date. Here, she is not being controlled by her sexual desire. Although she is strongly attracted to him, she has inhibitions such as feeling shy about showing her not “womanlike” body, a body which consists merely of muscle and injuries that is formed by the hard experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail. In this case, sex with Jonathan does not mean a regression to her past but a progress, the acceptance of her new formed, not typical curvy-womanlike outward appearance.

Moreover, sex with Jonathan also carries a moral lesson for Strayed. It becomes a reconciliation between her new self and her old ways of being in a relationship. Strayed is confronted with her past, her betrayal of her husband, her compulsive desire for sex and with her guilt. She begins to reflect on and be aware of the consequences of her behavior. Her guilt at first prevents her from having sex with Jonathan. She recognizes an old behavior of wanting to have sex and thinks that acting it out would mean further damage to herself. This in turn would deepen her grief and self-destructive behavior. She feels that she must forgive herself first for the pain she caused her husband, Paul, before she succumbs to her desires. Strayed walks alone on a beach, where she used to write Paul’s name in the sand and reflects that she is done feeling guilty and done hurting herself for Paul.

“[…] I knew I was doing it for the last time. I didn’t want to hurt for him anymore, to wonder, in leaving him I‘d make a mistake, I torment myself with all the ways I wronged him. What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do a single thing differently? What if I’d wanted to fuck every single one of those men? (Strayed, 258).

She does not want to feel tormented about all the ways she hurt him or wonder if she made a mistake by leaving him.

Her reflection can be regarded as one more step into the right direction for her because she finally takes full responsibility for her actions and for the consequences they had on her and on her marriage by accepting her past sinful deeds which she can and would not change in the past due to her psychological condition. By accepting the consequences of her deeds, Strayed can finally and mentally end the connection with Paul and with that she also ends the duty she had as a wife by writing his name in the sand for the last time.

In contrast to her compulsive past Strayed is now putting effort into not being self-destructive anymore. She takes care of her psychological needs first before taking any action. She self-reflects about her behavior in the past and brings a closure to unwanted behavior.

In the scene with Jonathan she also realizes that she has become more independent and confident. For instance, she is able to lie next to a handsome friend whom she also longs for and confirms: “For once I didn’t ache for a companion. For once the phrase a woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head”. Her statement reveals her real reason for sleeping with men and this is the grief of being left alone by her mother which she thought that she could not overcome on her own but this does change after her recovery. Strayed confirms that she no longer needs a companion and this equates to not only a psychological independence but in this case, an independence from men, too.

In conclusion, Strayed is a “heroic” in her own right. All the decisions she is making are essentially for herself but personal growth and a positive change in her will, influence everyone and everything of importance within her environment on and off the trail. How respectful and reflective her decisions are towards herself and her life will be reflected in how she treats others and in how she treats the environment around her.           

Strayed’s courage to hike The Pacific Crest Trail alone must be praised. This is a wilderness with all the possible endangerments attached to it and the fact that she, as a woman who went into that adventure alone, with no real preparation is inspiring. One might argue that exactly this point, having taken no real preparation, is reckless and naive but it is her spontaneous reaction to her coping with her grief.        

The criticism by some reviewers of her having learnt nothing while on the Pacific Crest Trail can be refuted. She does recover from her grief through her reconnection to nature, which brings an inner reconnection to (memories of) her mother and through experiences on the trail that helped her discover and develop what strengths and capabilities she actually has.

The Pacific Crest Trail inspires Strayed through its beautiful nature and her learning to feel safe in the outdoors lessens her anxiety and evokes confidence in herself, a strength that is new to her. The wild animals, especially, give Strayed a feeling of support but unlike the support of her mother, Strayed does not become dependent on them.

Strayed’s determination in overcoming obstacles and in staying committed to achieving her aim of finishing the trail is the main reason for her gaining independence in the end. Furthermore, Strayed develops a physical and psychological strength by moving beyond the mental pain of loss as well as the physical pain from injuries she endured on the trail. Her perseverance shows that she is not seeking sympathy from the reader.     

Strayed’s ability to self-reflect and admit her wrong doings is due to her being out alone on the Pacific Crest Trail for a long period of time. There is no distraction from taking an honest look at herself, which she does. Furthermore, self-reflection and admittance of responsibility for her behavior underline her honesty and are just the first steps towards permanent change.

Although Strayed seems to make reckless decisions at times, she becomes mature along the way. In the end, the Pacific Crest Trail positively shapes her character, her thinking and her spirit in more ways than it is life-threatening to her.


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