Tuesday, September 20, 2016

While reading Cheryl Strayed's Wild...

I am listening to Wild on audiobook in my car. Like the people in those Audible ads, I am immersed in the book. I may appear to be driving, but I'm hiking hot stretches of the Pacific Coast Trail or rounding an icy bend balancing the weight of my pack. I push on to the next goal post by pushing my foot on the accelerator, driving further in an hour than what Cheryl Strayed walked in a day. I'm only running errands, yet I emerge from my car feeling I've accomplished something akin to a hero's journey.

As I drive and listen, I contemplate the question: why did Strayed keep hiking after her toenails fell off? After her pack bruised and skinned her? After she nearly died of heat exhaustion and thirst? Most people would have quit when the first toenail turned black or after the first encounter with a rattlesnake.

But the answer is in every line of the book. She didn't quit because she had nothing else. No home, no other destination, no one needing her to be somewhere particular. Just desperate determination, and the trail ahead.

Maybe it's desperate determination that separates good artists/singers/actors who acquiesce to careers that pay the bills and push their art to the side, and those who  continue to create because they must. Without desperation, a lot of art wouldn't be made or made visible.

Her hike isn't entirely a fantasy for me because I, too, have hiked in California mountain and desert. I, too, have stuck out my thumb and gotten rides along quiet roads and busy highways there. At one time in my life, almost all of my possessions could fit into an external-frame Kelty backpack. I had no ambition but to see new things and talk to people in different towns. I wanted the world to be my education.

It's funny typing this, on a Mac computer, in my house in Maryland. Now all my possessions would fill a large moving truck or two. The Kelty backpack is long gone, traded for money or gas to someone in a town left behind. Just as Cheryl Strayed eventually got off the trail, I, too, moved on to my life. After an off-and-on relationship with college, I finished my degree at about the time I quit hitchhiking and long-distance hiking. Now I rarely see the wilderness and hike only on well-worn trails.

It is without much nostalgia that I think back to being young and hiking in the heat of the Mojave Desert, or camping on high, snowy ridges in Southern California. I don't want to be that unrooted young woman again, yet I'm enjoying being reminded of her/me as I listen to Wild.

Perhaps every life is a hero's journey, getting from there to here, and we don't recognize it as such. Even ambling we can reach our destination or create it as we go along.

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