Hiking Through Heartbreak

WRITER Cheryl Strayed’s unusually apt last name was self-selected in the wake of her mother’s premature death from cancer and after her first marriage collapsed under the weight of grief-stricken infidelity in 1995. Anguished and reeling from loss, then-26-year-old Strayed, a novice hiker, picked a new name for herself and took off on a 1,100-mile solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. In three months, she hiked from the Mojave Desert in California to the Washington state line in an attempt to heal. In her new memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf), she recounts her bold trek into the wilderness and her restorative journey home.

Strayed is also the wildly popular advice columnist for the online culture magazine The Rumpus (therumpus.net), writing under the pen name Sugar until she revealed her true identity in February. A collection of her “Dear Sugar” columns, Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage), will be published in July.

Brittany Shoot: Your stint as Sugar on The Rumpus has been wildly successful. How do you feel about the fact that many readers take so seriously advice from ordinary people? How does it feel to be treated as a life experiences expert?

Cheryl Strayed: I’m grateful when people tell me my advice has affected them positively, but I don’t translate that into letting myself believe I’m a “life experiences expert.” When I first began writing the “Dear Sugar” column, I thought a lot about whether I was qualified to give advice. Pretty quickly, I came to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as a qualified advice-giver. People who are willing and able to deeply reflect upon a matter and then express those reflections with as little bias and self-interest as possible are almost always going to offer something of value, regardless of their so-called expertise. That person might be your mother. It might be someone you met in the grocery store and chatted with one afternoon. It might be your pastor or therapist or school counselor. It might be an advice columnist who calls herself Sugar. All sorts of people are capable of giving excellent advice, just as all sorts of people—even those who give advice professionally—are capable of doing the opposite.

Your new memoir, Wild, can be uncomfortable to read: You were angry at God, deeply grieving your mother’s death, and at times quite self-destructive. But it’s also a beautifully honest tale because of how you go back and mine those painful experiences. What was it like emotionally to revisit and reconstruct that time in your life?

Thanks for your kind words. Writing Wild was both healing and informative. I learned a lot about my life and human nature by having to so deeply reflect upon my younger years, which were full of grief and tumult. From this distance, I could see myself more clearly and that allowed me insight not only into the girl I used to be, but also the woman I am now. I cried a lot while writing Wild, but I laughed a lot, too.

How did nature help you heal?

The same way it still does: by being so tremendously simple and complex at once. By its power and its silence. Like many people, I feel gathered when I’m among trees and grasses and wild things. I feel like I can breathe.

How does sharing personal advice compare with completing your memoir, both extremely personal forms of writing?

They feel similar to me in a lot of ways. Of course, in the “Dear Sugar” columns I’m answering a letter from someone seeking my advice, so I’m mindful that my writing has a mission—to offer help and guidance to another person. But ultimately I draw from the same well in all of my writing. n

Brittany Shoot is a Sojourners contributing writer.

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