I realized that in spite of my hardships, as I approached the end of my first leg of my journey, I’d begun to feel a blooming affection for the Pacific Crest Trail. My backpack, heavy as it was, had come to feel like my almost animate companion. No longer was it the absurd Volkswagen Beetle I’d painfully hoisted on in that motel room in Mojave a couple of weeks before. Now my backpack had a name: Monster.
I meant it in the nicest possible way. I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprisingly of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away. (p 92)
In March and April of 2008, I went on an unguided whitewater rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I had been on exactly one other rafting trip in my life at that point, the summer before; it had lasted two nights, been very warm, and we had traveled through almost no rough water. Out of the eighteen people asked on this trip, I was by far the least experienced in every area. Everyone had been asked because they had some special skill to offer – the doctor, the rock climber, the guide – or because they were the brilliant children of one of these men. Even the thirteen year old who drove us a little crazy with his incessant talking had more experience than I did. I had never been camping in a tent. I had never had to cook on a camp stove. I had never rowed a boat. I wasn’t a hiker. I wasn’t even strong. Before that trip, I hadn’t inflated a raft or loaded one – I didn’t even own a sleeping bag. I knew absolutely nothing about what I was getting into, and yet when my father-in-law (then, just a man I had met once or twice before) invited me to go on this trip – this exceptionally special trip he had been waiting his entire life to go on – I didn’t hesitate for a second. I didn’t think about all the things I didn’t know. I just said yes, yes please let me do this.
After I finished Wild, Strayed’s exceptional, lovely memoir about her eleven-hundred-mile solo hike on the PCT, I went and read through some of the things I had written about my own trip, the twenty-one day odyssey that changed me forever for the better. I found a picture someone had taken of me and another man staring out at the river, and I had written on it, Here’s Chuck and I before one of the big rapids. Neither of us liked to scout the rapids. I found it made me much more nervous, and since I had little control over the events about to unfold, I preferred ignorance. I really did too. Part of me always felt like I should walk up the trail with the rest of the party, to stare down at the churning water and pretend I could pick out the paths they were choosing between. I couldn’t though. The one time I went, I felt so sick with fear that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get back on my boat. And of course, that wasn’t an option. So I settled for not knowing, for trusting that when the time came, I would figure out how to do what had to be done.
And I mostly did, eventually (or as I liked to tease my parents, I lived, didn’t I?) Day by day, I learned that I would wake up with fear in my gut, and when the only choice was facing my fear, I would do just that. I would throw myself head first into fear, and I would call it bravery.
On that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by my father anymore.
There were so many other amazing things in this world.
They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.
I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too. (p 234)
When we got back from our trip, I remember trying to tell the experience, tried to fit words into feelings I had never had before, about myself and about how I fit into the world. I would find myself staring at my hands, weathered and brown – they looked like the capable hands of someone else. And yet the blisters were mine. The scars, the new-found strength in my fingers – all mine. It was impossible to fully share what I had learned on the river to people who had never seen it. Not because I didn’t want to try, or because I felt superior for having survived such a trip – just the opposite, actually. I was deeply humbled by how little I had contributed. I had been next to useless, and yet I felt so huge and real from the experience. I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. I had seen exactly how superfluous I could be, and yet I had discovered a deep love for myself that I’d never had before.
Reading Wild, I got the feeling that Strayed had experienced something similar. Finishing her book was like having read something a part of me had written – it was achingly familiar, even though her stories are hers, and mine are mine.This was once Mazama, I kept reminding myself. This was once a mountain that stood nearly 12,000 feet tall and then had its heart removed. This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash. This was once an empty bowl that took hundreds of years to fill. But hard as I tried, I couldn’t see them in my mind’s eye. Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl. They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began. (p 273) To learn more about Cheryl Strayed, head over here.