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A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again.
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.
1. “The Pacific Crest Trail wasn’t a world to me then. It was an idea, vague and outlandish, full of promise and mystery. Something bloomed inside me as I traced its jagged line with my finger on a map” (p. 4). Why did the PCT capture Strayed’s imagination at that point in her life?
2. Each section of the book opens with a literary quote or two. What do they tell you about what’s to come in the pages that follow? How does Strayed’s pairing of, say, Adrienne Rich and Joni Mitchell (p. 45) provide insight into her way of thinking?
3. Strayed is quite forthright in her description of her own transgressions, and while she’s remorseful, she never seems ashamed. Is this a sign of strength or a character flaw?
4. On the trail, Strayed encounters mostly men. How does this work in her favor? What role does gender play when removed from the usual structure of society?
5. What does the reader learn from the horrific episode in which Strayed and her brother put down their mother’s horse?
6. Strayed writes that the point of the PCT “had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets” (p. 207). How does this sensation help Strayed to find her way back into the world beyond the wilderness?
7. On her journey, Strayed carries several totems. What does the black feather mean to her? And the POW bracelet? Why does she find its loss (p. 238) symbolic?
8. Does the hike help Strayed to get over Paul? If so, how? And if not, why?
9. Strayed says her mother’s death “had obliterated me.... I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill” (p 267). How did being on the PCT on her mother’s fiftieth birthday help Strayed to heal this wound?
10. What was it about Strayed that inspired the generosity of so many strangers on the PCT?
11. “There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another.... But I was pretty certain as I sat there that night that if it hadn’t been for Eddie, I wouldn’t have found myself on the PCT” (p. 304). How does this realization change Strayed’s attitude towards her stepfather?
12. What role do books and reading play in this often solitary journey?
Cheryl Strayed is a New York Times bestselling author, who lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children. Her autobiographical debut novel, Torch, was published 2006. In 2012 she published another bestseller, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the true account of her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed also writes the online advice column "Dear Sugar."
Strayed was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Minnesota, where she graduated from McGregor High School in Aitkin County, a place upon which the fictional Coltrap County in Torch is based. She received her B.A. from the University of Minnesota and her M.F.A in fiction writing from Syracuse University, where she was mentored by writers George Saunders and Mary Gaitskill among others. She is married to filmmaker Brian Lindstrom.