Propelled by grief and the dissolution of her family, Cheryl Strayed impulsively decided to hike a long portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. The untimely death of her mother, the driving force that held her family together, devastated her at age 22. Her loving siblings and step father became distant and the family dissolved, as did her own marriage.
She had been camping and canoeing before, but had no experience backpacking. She had not even walked with a full pack to prepare for this adventure. Readers may be sympathetic or incredulous as the story of this woman unfolds with tales of her shouldering a too heavy pack as she set out alone to cover several hundred miles. Along the way she crossed a snow field with an ice axe. She also encountered a variety of people, most of whom were generous and helpful. One experienced backpacker emptied her pack and split the belongings into two piles - items she should keep and those she could do without. For example, he suggested she keep the ice axe but not the folding saw.
Strayed refers to herself as the girl with the hole in her heart, but along the way she gains both physical and emotional strength. She includes flashbacks about her history of drug use and infidelities, which put her on a trajectory that ended in divorce. Her remarks are candid and confessional without penitence, which will undoubtedly put off some readers.
Some reviewers also responded negatively because the book is tightly focused on the author and her experience of the trail, some might be tempted to use the word self-absorbed. One went so far as to say that it could just as easily have been written in a detox ward. I disagree. Admittedly, she neither extols the beauty of nature which daily surrounded her, nor exhorts her readers to preserve the vanishing wilderness. The narrative is about the challenge of the trail as a transformation experience.
Most readers will find the book is a great read, a well written narrative of a quest for wholeness. She is deeply motivated by the challenge of the trail and somewhat by the beauty of the natural world. In the end, she achieves a spiritual core, albeit in non-traditional spirituality, and is changed for the better by the experiences she records. I give this book five stars.