I learned patience and forgot about all of my material belongings.
In the winter of 2013, my boss handed me a copy of Wild by Cheryl Strayed -- for obvious reasons. Strayed and I had both completed daring wilderness trips in the late 1990s. Strayed hiked 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail; I paddled 1,700 miles on the Voyageur Highway. Strayed was recently divorced; I was recently married. We even wore the same hiking boots and assigned our packs a name (though my boss didn't know all of this). And we had done it without GPS units or the advice of phones.
There are plenty of differences, of course -- family situations, extracurricular activities, and, of course, she hiked solo while I paddled with my new groom. But at the core of our stories are two women who, one step or one paddle stroke at a time, covered a great distance of wilderness.
What was equally as interesting to me, as a fellow writer, was that Wild had beaten the odds. Pop culture favors wilderness stories that cause great suffering -- preferably told by men preferably. Whether movie or literature, fiction or nonfiction, the cultural hits highlight death (Into the Wild), maiming (127 Hours), horrific suffering (Touching the Void), supernatural strangeness (The Blair Witch Project) or sodomy (Deliverance).
Yet here was Strayed with her too-heavy backpack "Monster" and too-small hiking boots, heading off on the hiking trail with little more than blisters to fear. Everything bad that would happen had already happened -- and the only role for wilderness to take was that of healer. With an Oprah seal of approval on the cover, Strayed had written her way into the hearts of a million readers, convinced a throng of young women to hit the hiking trail and turned her story into a movie. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Wild is now playing in Madison and around the country.
From wilderness, Strayed found space and solitude to grieve, to reflect and to ultimately find her self again. For me, wilderness provided lessons in humility, gratitude and confidence. For 11 months, I lived with what I could carry, moved only as far as I could power myself and communicated via handwritten letters. I spent most of my days the first four months in an 18-1/2-foot canoe and evenings under the stars. Or if it rained, under a tarp.
I learned patience and forgot about all of my material belongings -- the shed where my husband, Charly, and I had stored our things could have burned and I wouldn't have missed anything. I learned how to argue and make up because there was nowhere to go and no one else to talk to. Strayed reaches the end of her journey, and stops at the East Wind Drive-In for an ice cream cone. A man asks if she would like a ride into Portland. She declines because she wants to stay awhile. "Just to take it all in." She is content to sit alone.
I spoke last spring to an auditorium of teenagers at Conserve School, a one-semester private high school for environmentally minded juniors in northern Wisconsin. On the drive I started to imagine bored teens sneaking glances at their phones -- more interested in a text than in hearing about one person's wilderness journey. I was wrong. The students were not only attentive but they all raised their hands at the end -- they had their own adventures they wanted to take.
Afterwards they mobbed me as well as my co-speaker, Lori Schneider, a mountain climber with multiple sclerosis, who through her 40s and 50s, climbed the highest peaks on all seven continents. It's the closest I'll ever come to feeling a rock-star rush. They asked Schneider how she could afford to climb mountains -- I've been asked the same question regarding long-term wilderness travel many times. I've now adopted her answer: start an adventure fund. Never let money be the excuse.
The lesson I took from Conserve and the one I appreciate from reading Wild, is that the world needs even more examples of people who step outside the norm and not only live to tell the tale, but come out better for it.
In a recent New York Times interview, Strayed weighed in on the tradition of "man versus nature" in literature. "It wasn't me trying to conquer it; it was me living in it," she said. "So much about Wild is about acceptance and surrender and vulnerability. To me that's the greatest strength, not this conquering kind of narrative that we have embedded in our bones."
In wilderness there is humor, internal and external dialogue, the building and deepening of relationships. There is laughter and there are stupid songs that loop in your head. Instead of the fear-based approach to nature, Wild offers the promise, for anyone willing, of a reward.
Those who journey into the wild won't know the prize -- it's different for everyone -- but then discovery is half the journey.