The woman whose runaway best-selling memoir bears the cover photo of a dirty, battered, worn hiking boot could not be facing a more ironic challenge.
“I’ve been told that I need to learn how to walk in high heels, because I really do not know how to,” said Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” “I’m not wearing heels as we’re speaking right now, but I will be practicing later today.”
The reason for this extreme footwear change is that Strayed will soon be walking red carpets at the premieres of the movie version of “Wild,” made from Strayed’s 2013 book. Although it will be officially released in December, the film, with Reese Witherspoon as Strayed and Laura Dern as her mother, had its premiere Monday at the Toronto Film Festival.
Strayed, who will speak at 8 p.m. Sept. 10 in UB’s Alumni Arena as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series, is coming to Western New York directly from Toronto.
Strayed’s book has been selected as the September pick of The Buffalo News Book Club.
“Wild” is the complicated, insightful and equally harrowing and hilarious story of the author’s decision 20 years ago to make a three-month solo trek of 1,000 miles on the rugged, mountainous Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert just north of Los Angeles to the Bridge of the Gods near Portland.
Strayed chose that challenge – a decision she now recognizes as her personal rite of passage – at age 26, four years after the death of her beloved mother at age 45, which was followed by estrangement from her siblings and stepfather and the breakup of her marriage. After a self-destructive spiral into drug abuse and promiscuity, Strayed, who gave herself that last name after her divorce, settled on the idea of hiking the trail.
She wrote, “I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning, not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be – strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way.”
Instead, burdened under a ridiculously heavy pack she begins to call The Monster, Strayed finds herself taking her first steps on the trail “hunching in a remotely upright position.”
Today, speaking from the Portland, Ore., home she shares with her husband, Brian Lindstrom, their 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, Strayed is far from the anguished and grieving young woman who came out of the trek with scars, calluses and missing toenails, but emotionally and mentally toughened.
Surviving the challenges of the hike might have prepared Strayed for the sometimes bruising process of watching her book transformed into a condensed and marketable story for the big screen, but she had an unusual and delightful experience with the creators of the movie version of “Wild.” From the beginning, she was closely involved with the production of the movie and shared her opinions, insight and expertise with the stars and director alike.
“I know how unorthodox this is,” she said. “I don’t know another writer who has had this experience, really. I’ve heard many bad Hollywood stories, too.”
Strayed said she approached the film version of her story as different from her memoir. “The writer does own the book, the writer made that story,” she said. “I told Reese and then I told the director, Jean-Marc Vallée, you need to make this yours. The book is mine, that was my artistic creation, nothing will ever change the book. But you need to own this story in order for it to succeed, and I really trusted them to do that. So then they weren’t threatened by me, they knew I wasn’t going to be a diva, saying, ‘No, it has to be this way.’ They saw that and there was an enormous amount of trust from the very beginning.”
Another reason she was so accepted by people involved with the film – “I was involved from the beginning to the end, I read the script and offered feedback, I was on the set, I talked extensively with the actors about the people they were portraying,” she said – is that she just got along well with them. “I really hit it off personally with Reese and (screenwriter) Nicky Hornby and Jean-Marc, and we just worked well together and it was a wonderful experience.”
It was also a wonderful experience because her daughter plays Strayed in the film’s flashbacks to her childhood.
Strayed said that they key themes of her book translated well to the film. “I read a review written by somebody who had seen the trailer of the movie, and they said, ‘In the book, it’s not like there are these big dramatic terrible things that happen on her hike, it’s more just the drama of the day-to-day.’ It’s not like I was attacked by a bear or fell down a crevasse. I think so much of ‘Wild’ does hinge on the eternal struggles that we all experience when we’re doing something that’s hard physically and emotionally and outside our comfort zone, and I think that’s why so many people relate to it.”
In her mind, the complicated story of her losses, her life and her trek can be distilled to one issue: how to overcome challenges.
“In my talks, and I’ll talk about this in Buffalo, I mention that scene in ‘Wild’ where I am trying to put on my pack for the first time, and I can’t lift it. I mean, it’s a funny scene, whenever I read it out loud people laugh, but really I think that scene kind of expresses the heart of the book really, the core story of the book. The biggest question I am asking in that scene is how do we bear the unbearable? How do we bear the things that we believe we can’t? Every single person will have to face that at one time or another in their lives.”
In the years that have passed since she made the trek, Strayed has realized that her journey was similar to the classic rites of passage carried out in many cultures around the world.
“I’m 45 and of course I was writing about the 26-year-old me in ‘Wild,’ but I could see how much what I needed to experience was a developmental phase that was not unlike what toddlers go through. Anyone who has ever been in the company of a toddler knows the ‘I do it’ phase. I think in our 20s, if we grow up right and do our job as people, we have to do that again, to say, ‘Not only have I left the nest but I am really going to make my life my own, and I am responsible for all my choices and I suffer the consequences or benefits of them.’
Although there is no formal rite of passage in our culture for those in their mid-20s, Strayed said, “Looking back I could see that I had created my own rite of passage, that it was about me as being completely the holder of my own life. Part of it was just needing to be alone. When you do look at rites of passage in other cultures, they always involve solitude, physical challenge and some kind of deprivation. I had all of those in my hike.”
Hiking alone, Strayed faced a level of danger that those with companions did not, and as a woman, that menace was magnified. Her bad experiences were limited to a couple of uncomfortable encounters, and Strayed thinks there is a lesson in that, too.
“I know there are bad people who do bad things, there is no question about that, but most people don’t,” she said. “I think so often the way we experience others is in traffic or in some big stadium, where everyone is out for themselves. But it’s really hard to be out for yourself when you are walking on a trail. You meet people and it’s the opposite: ‘Do you need anything? I have this food and we could share it if you need some.’ A lot of people have talked to me about the generosity of strangers I met along the way, and I don’t know that I wrote this very much in the book, but it was reciprocal, I also helped strangers. It is the culture of the trail. And everyone who has hiked long trails says that’s how it is. If you ever need your faith in humanity restored, just go on a backpacking trip.”
Since her book was published to great acclaim, Strayed has reaped an unexpected benefit. Readers have told her that they have been both inspired and motivated by her story.
“I am so humbled by how many people have said to me, ‘I did this because of you,’ whether they are taking a walk or really anything challenging,” she said. “People have said, ‘I am starting to walk an hour a day by myself and it changed my life.’ I say, ‘Yeah!’ There is some magic to just letting your mind go and get moving. I love it that people have been liberated and inspired by reading my book. When I was writing it, I know this sounds strange, but I had no idea that people would be inspired by it.”
Next week’s visit to Buffalo will be her first stop in the area, although soon after their wedding, Strayed and Lindstrom passed through the area on their way from Portland to Syracuse, where she attended graduate school. “Our honeymoon was essentially riding in a U-Haul with two cats,” she said, adding, in the humorous tone that will be familiar to readers of “Wild,” “It was so romantic, everything I ever dreamed.”
Lindstrom will make the trip with Strayed, although their actual time in Western New York will be limited, she said. “We have heard such great things about it. My husband said, ‘I want to see that town!’ ”
And, she said, laughing, “I won’t have to walk there!”
eVintage Books, the publisher of “Wild,” has made several copies of Cheryl Strayed’s book available to Buffalo News Book Club readers. To be considered for a book, send a note to Buffalo News Book Club, One News Plaza, Buffalo, N.Y., 14240, or an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us why you would like a copy of the book, and remember to include your mailing address.
Tickets for Strayed’s talk at UB cost $34, $28, $24 and $16 for general admission. They can be purchased at the Alumni Arena box office or at TicketMaster.