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Transformation in the Woods: Wild By Cheryl Strayed

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When the 22-year-old Cheryl Strayed loses her young mother to lung cancer, her life plunges into a downward spiral leading to the disintegration of her family, compulsive adultery and heroin addiction. Surveying the wreckage of her life at the age of 26, newly divorced, Strayed resolves to hike -- alone -- 1,770 kilometres of the Pacific Crest Trail, from California to Oregon. The reason she gives: "I'd walk and think about my entire life. I'd find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous."

But as Strayed candidly admits, the journey does not turn out as planned. Before she even begins the hike, hoisting her enormous backpack turns out to be nearly impossible, and her too-tight boots commence to destroy her feet. The money she has saved up from waitressing tips turns out to be just barely enough to sustain her.

Yet the journey also brings unexpected blessings, many involving the people -- diverse, finely detailed and sometimes amusing -- she meets on the trail. In the end, the journey does transform Strayed -- and a central strength of Wild is that the reader viscerally experiences this transformation along with her.

A memoir that is by turns harrowing, lyrical and funny, Wild may benefit from Strayed's distance from the material. Now in her early 40s, she is more often gently wry about her 26-year-old self than emotionally overwrought. Her restraint makes the tragic moments all the more heart-rending: Strayed's account of her mother's quick and horrible battle with cancer is searing in its imagery. Later, when she and her brother are forced to execute their mother's dying horse, the gory nightmare that ensues is all too vividly depicted against the stark landscape of winter in rural Minnesota.

Wild is the story of a journey, but it is really two journeys, inextricably intertwined. One of these journeys is acutely physical, as Strayed describes agonizing foot pain, draining heat and the persistent mad desire for burgers and Snapple lemonade. This aspect of the hike occupies Strayed more than she had bargained for: "I thought I'd weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips."

But Strayed is ultimately a writer for whom symbolism is essential, and she confers upon her backbreaking ordeal the metaphysical trappings of a quest story. Strayed's target goal is to reach the evocatively named Bridge of the Gods near Portland, Oregon. Her enormous backpack, which ravages the flesh of her hips, she names "Monster" -- and it seems an apt metaphor for the weight of the emotional burdens she carries, from the tunnelling grief for her mother, to guilt for destroying her marriage. As the journey progresses, Strayed grows to feel more affectionate toward Monster, accepting it as a part of her -- and undergoes a parallel process with regard to her feelings of grief and guilt.

Her mother, Bobbi, is a tangible presence throughout, and there are hints that Strayed believes Bobbi's spirit is there with her in the woods, and that it is her task to both accept her mother fully at last, with all her faults, as she never had a chance to do as a young college student, and to lay her mother to rest "on the other side of the river."

Finally, while the rigours of the PCT cause Strayed to veer between feeling like a "big fat idiot" and a "hardass Amazonian queen," the friends she makes on the trail ultimately name her "Queen of the PCT" -- as fitting an end to a quest as any.

So beneath -- or perhaps above -- a gritty account of physical hardship is the age-old story of a hero who enters the depths of the woods, endures many trials there, and emerges at last with a light to give to the world. In this particular case, that light is this book.

This review originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.