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Jennifer Handford Headshot

Too Wild for Me

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While at the beach this summer I read Cheryl Strayed's Wild, and what struck me the most wasn't the delightfulness of the read. Truly, I enjoyed lifting each foot with her -- step after step -- carrying her too-heavy backpack, which she affectionately calls "Monster," while trudging her way up the Pacific Crest Trail in hiking boots that were too small for her feet. I marveled at her bravery as she pitched her tent each night and slept in the black of the wilderness, with no comfort or protection other than a thin layer of nylon separating her from the critters and larger beasts. I felt her raw emotion, her wide-open wound, as she endeavored to "walk out" the grief she bore from losing her mother at a too-early age, robbed by a disease that took her unfairly -- lung cancer after years of organic gardening and toxin avoidance. Without seeing her, I saw her, her thrashing self that was tossed into a tempest -- that sense that we all encounter from time to time when we simply do not know what to do with ourselves. I traveled alongside her, rooted her on and prayed for her brokenness to seal itself back together.

I did all that. I enjoyed the book.

But I'm also a forty-something-year-old mother of daughters and there was a constant clamoring of loud voices that I simply couldn't hush as I read of Cheryl's journey. Seriously! You're a young woman in your twenties? Hiking alone for 1,100 miles? Through the wilderness where there are certain to be bear and wolves and cougars (and in her case, a charging bull)? Up and down sketchily-marked trails where you could find yourself lost, miles from safety? Sleeping alone in the darkness each night? Hoping that your meager water supply will last you to your next stop? Hitchhiking with strangers from outpost to outpost? Hoping that you're not attacked by leering men? Seriously, girl? What were you thinking?

When I finished reading Strayed's book, I saw that her adventure -- one that ended gloriously in Oregon atop the Bridge of the Gods, wasn't recent. She made this trek seventeen years earlier, and only now had taken pen to paper to record her experience. I found this interesting, and when I let the thought mull, I began to think of my own equivalent.

In graduate school, I traveled abroad to Russia. I settled in with my housemate, Anastasia (she went by Stacy), in her parents' flat in a typically eastern-bloc building. Her apartment had two doors, literally. After unbolting the first door's deadlock and pulling open the heavy door, there was another door, clad with even more deadbolts. When I asked Stacy why an apartment would need two doors, she told me that there were many things to fear in Russia.

Over the course of the next month, she and I ran wild. After our morning courses at the university, we'd take a shortcut home through a field of uncut wilderness. We would walk atop a labrynth of pipes that wended its way through the brush, using our arms like machetes to clear the way. Then, we'd head to the market and hitchhike home. We drank vodka out of bottles that had been refilled by bootleggers. We chatted with the chauffers who stood guard in front of the black Mercedes. Mafia, I later learned.

At the time, it seemed perfectly safe. A wary thought never entered my 20-year old mind. Nothing had gone wrong in my life, thus, nothing could go wrong. Now, twenty-plus years later, I cringe to think at what might have happened. The naïveté I once had has been replaced by fear. My brain is now hard-wired for danger. When I look at cars, I see crashes. When I look at water, I see drownings. When I look at parks, I see lurkers.

So much could have gone wrong, but nothing did. But sometimes it does, and it's those few times that are enough to infuse our more mature selves with a lifetime of worry, an inoculation against free-spiritedness and a dose of wariness from which we will never recover.

Seventeen years after Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I wonder if she now feels the same way. Does she look back at her younger self -- burdened by grief, but carefree in so many ways -- and think, Holy Smokes, I was a footstep away from being attacked, raped, stranded, starved? Or does she allow that piece of her life to stand alone as something that all twenty-somethings should experience, whether it be a semester abroad or four months on the PCT or a stint as a missionary in a third world country?

In Cheryl's situation, she didn't have a parent to look over her. But many young adults do, and these parents -- against their better judgment -- let their children experience adventure for the sake of it. They know that the rite of passage that accompanies such journeys is an exquisite one, one worth sleepless night after sleepless night, nail biting and praying that their children avoid harm. All this with the keen acknowledgement that their child's propensity for risk, the kiss of wanderlust, the desire to conquer, isn't yet tempered by the reason that comes only with age. In that sense, parents are pretty courageous -- to let their children fly even though they know there is a real possibility of a broken wing.

Cheryl Strayed's Wild -- in that sense -- is an homage not only to her unfolding and folding back up of her life, but a nod to her younger self, an affirmation that says to experience life before the fear catches up with you.