It's been brought to my attention that admirers of Cheryl's book-- and possibly even Cheryl herself-- have been made aware of this blog. Today, a guest writer will respond to the concerns of these people because I shouldn't be trusted with this task.
I-- the author of this blog-- own the fact that I am a giant douchebag. The whole purpose behind starting this blog was to amuse (what I imagined would only be) a handful of my friends by pointing out inconsistencies in Cheryl's story in an entertaining manner and to make fun of Cheryl's terrible writing. Full disclosure: I hate this book and I think Cheryl Strayed is a narcissistic sociopath (as well as a pathological liar and an awful writer).
That said, for this installment, Tori will be a guest writer. She intends to address all of the problems with this book in a thoughtful, logical and respectful manner. This is for the benefit of people who enjoyed the book and feel that all criticism of the book is unfounded and simply rooted in jealousy or elitism. I've read what Tori has written and I can assure you, she writes nothing in an insulting manner. She is honest, direct and respectful. She is not "bashing" Cheryl. She has some legitimate concerns and she addresses them in a calm, diplomatic way.
For all of the people who enjoyed Cheryl's book, this is for you. Please read Tori's post and come to your own conclusions.
When WILD, by Cheryl Strayed, was released in 2012, I was excited. As an avid long distance hiker with ties to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I couldn't wait to read WILD. I imagined it would be similar to some of the other, spectacular PCT trail journals that were available. I devoured ZERO DAY (Egbert) and BLISTERED KIND OF LOVE (Ballard). I read Bill Bryson's Appalachian Trail book, A WALK IN THE WOODS, and other long distance hiking publications. There are so many of them! Most of them are written by people who have jobs other than "author, " but the stories were so descriptive and inspiring, it didn't seem to matter. I pre-ordered WILD and the day it arrived, I packed a day pack and hiked up to my favorite peak to read it.
I was immediately disappointed. But, more than that,...this book just didn't sit right. There were, as Iggy might say, "99 problems". For the sake of brevity, I'll winnow it down to ten. Keep in mind, none of these reasons are in any way related to jealousy or the "hater" mentality. Remember, I wanted to love this book!
1. DISTANCES HIKED- If you haven't read WILD, please read it. While you're reading, keep a pen and paper handy. Cheryl starts out with very detailed trail notes and mileage. In fact, she claims to have only hiked four miles on the first day. The next day, she takes a zero day, The next day, she hikes eight miles. Day four is another zero day. Day five is 9 miles. So, in five days, she walked 21 miles. But, the descriptions of where she is do not remotely resemble the environments the trail reached at those mile markers. In fact, there are blatant discrepancies throughout the book between the distances she claimed to have hiked and the pace at which she does it. As is this first few chapters of the book, you have these bizarre, lazy, zero days in places with little to no available water and every reason to hustle through. But, Cheryl's experience seems, in every way, contrary to long distance hiking. Furthermore, after only hiking 21 miles by day five, day nine finds her over 100 miles away despite another zero day.
2. DISTANCES SKIPPED- If I tell you I hiked the John Muir Trail in yo-yo fashion, you might rightly assume I hiked the entirety of the trail - first one way, then hitting the terminus and returning over the same route. In the hiking world, the terms "thru hike" and "yo-yo" are words in a simple language that convey a greater meaning. So, when I read the promos for WILD, it was originally labeled, by Mrs. Strayed, as a "PCT thru hike" and, in some cases, she accepted and used the label of "PCT thru hiker". For those who do not know, a thru hike is a hike from terminus to terminus. In this case, the Southern Terminus would be the Mexican border (or, as close as you can legally get) and the Northern Terminus would be the Canadian Border. Unless you have, somehow, hiked the entire distance between those two points, YOU ARE NOT A THRU HIKER. You might say you're a section hiker or did long portions of the trail, but you are not a thru hiker. I think many people fail to realize that Mrs. Strayed only hiked 1/3 of the trail. Of the other 2/3s, I have heard her repeatedly claim that "no one hiked the high Sierras that year between Kennedy Meadows and Donner Pass" due to snow. That is untrue. Yes. At the time Cheryl approached that particular section, there was a snow pack and many hikers skipped it, with the intention of coming back through when the snow had melted. This is actually a common tactic to get around bad weather. Cheryl skipped approximately 450 miles of the trail by skipping this section. Add that to the 557 miles she skipped from Mexico to Tehachapi and Cheryl has skipped over a thousand miles of trail before it left California. What she did do, for reasons to be explained below, is suspect. So, what are we left with?
3. YELLOW BLAZING - If you take other means, besides putting one foot in front of the other, you do not get to count it as "hiked". So, despite telling multiple media sources that she hiked the length of California, the reality is that, even giving Cheryl the benefit of the doubt, the majority of California was skipped or yellow blazed. Yellow Blazing refers to the yellow lines down the middle of a road and generally refers to the practice of using a vehicle to skip large trail sections. In California, we know she Yellow Blazed more than 600 miles. This was calculated using her own distances and stories. You can't get into a car and bum a ride around sections of the trail and then count it. In Oregon, for example, she coyly refers to Yellow Blazing large chunks and then stops giving any semblance of days covered or distance.
4. POOR PREPARATION - It's been said before, but needs to be said again. What Cheryl did was gravely irresponsible! She not only put her own life in danger -which would have been bad enough - but, had she been unable to self rescue or unlucky- her carelessness could've meant loss of life or injury to first responders. This has been downplayed so much as to be remarkable. I've seen countless blogs where people, generally non-hikers, suggest that the message Cheryl has to give and the answers she needed to obtain were worth the risk...and, shockingly, even some seasoned hikers excusing her poor planning by suggesting that getting on the trail is more important than planning. This is dangerous! ANY HIKER, "DAY", "SECTION", or "LONG DISTANCE" should expect and prepare for the worst. You have a responsibility to plan your route(s) and carry the right materials to self rescue or care for yourself until you can be rescued. Cheryl admits that she didn't plan this beyond making a few trips to REI and purchasing trail journals that she quickly throws out. Carrying a "monster" backpack may make for a good story and inspire sympathy from readers unfamiliar with hiking, but any reasonable hiker would admit that Cheryl SHOULD HAVE, and had no reason not to, ATTEMPT SEVERAL SHORT HIKES WITH HER BACKPACK before ever hitting the PCT. Her inability to stand upright or balance aren't cute or funny. Hitting the trail without prepping was stupid. PERIOD. The learning curve is death or injury. And, yes, Cheryl claimed, up until very recently, that she had had no experience hiking before this. If, as she claims now, she did have experience- then one would imagine she would have known the boots were too small and the pack was too heavy before she hit Mojave.
5. SAFETY - There is absolutely no excuse for some of the risks Cheryl took and there's no good reason to play it off as anything but reckless. Hitchhiking is a common way to get from hotel to trail in the hiking world. But, you don't just jump into any random car to get there. There are other ways. Towns on the PCT know about the PCT and many of the hotels know that hikers need rides and will take time to get you where you need to be. This has been the case since the late 80's. GETING INTO CARS WITH MEN OFFERING DRUGS is ridiculously foolish. DIPPING INTO THE DRUG STASHES OF MEN LIVING IN MILK VANS IS DANGEROUS. I've heard many people excuse this behavior by pointing out that Cheryl made it out okay and that risks not taken make for a boring life. OK. Fair enough. How many of you would tell your daughters to do what Cheryl did? Except for creating a better story, there's no excuse for the risks Cheryl took. This leads to the next point...
6. HIKING ALONE - Aside from being incredibly foolish, Cheryl's constant insistence to hike between "hubs" can be seen as evasive. It's intriguing that the only witness who has come forward to verify Cheryl's presence on the trail has been the man she yellow blazed with- not someone she hiked with. Where are The Young Bucks? Where are the women she met and "hop scotched" over the trail with? Where are the rangers she met? Hiking alone can be a freeing experience and there's merit in knowing that you can do it by yourself. I encourage solo hiking...but, what Cheryl did was actively avoid the regular hiking crowd. It's almost neurotic how often she chose hiking alone and for multiple days without seeing another person...unless they added a strange twist to her story. There is no one who can say they hiked more than 10 miles with Cheryl in 1996. I hate comparing that to my own experience, but it needs to be said: I can point to at least thirty people who I got to know on my JMT yo-yo. You might not hike with them all day, but you definitely run into them in the evenings or you catch up to them one day only for them to catch up to you another. This is how the trail community is built and long term friendships are created.
Hiking alone guarantees that your story can't be questioned. No witnesses means no denials. I can't prove Cheryl didn't hike the whole trail. I also can't prove Big Foot isn't out there. I can't prove that your version of events is false if you actively avoid sharing that experience with me. Most hikers thrive on the exchange of information and, even when trying to learn about themselves, end up part of a larger event. But, aside from the one man, no one has come forward to share their experiences with Cheryl.
7. PORTRAYAL OF ETHNICITIES - It's hard for me to write this, but one of the things that stuck out to me was the manner in which Cheryl describes the people around her. I do not want to put words in her mouth, so read her book and regard the manner in which she describes people and assigns weight to that description.
8. MARY SUE- One of the characterizations in literature is that of the Mary Sue. The Mary Sue is almost always the protagonist and is held in awe by the people she meets. She is golden. Even her bad choices are viewed with a rosy filter. Cheryl became her own Mary Sue. Thru hikers do assign trail names to one another. It's practically a rite of passage and is, usually, looked forward to. Contrary to what has been said, I've never seen a group of hikers brand a hiker with a truly unfortunate name with bad intent. That said, there is no way anyone would crown someone "Queen of the PCT", especially when that someone didn't hike the whole trail. It strains credulity. It's a very "Mary Sue" thing. Furthermore, a group of seasoned PCT hikers, after months on the trail, wouldn't be shocked by Cheryl's hike or her pack. Everyone's out there for the same purpose, if not the same reason: to hike. Big packs and feet problems are par for the course. The adoration of Cheryl seems particularly large...especially coming from people doing the exact same thing as she is. There were other women. There were other hikers.
9. INCONSISTENCIES - A man pulls Cheryl aside and interviews her for a Hobo Magazine. Strangely, this interview never makes it to print and is only ever mentioned by Cheryl, about Cheryl. Calls to the past owner of the publication state that no one was in that area writing for them at that time. Ever the Mary Sue, Cheryl is offended that he sees her as a hobo instead of the "AMAZON QUEEN" she thinks she is....but, uses the experience in her book despite it being completely unverifiable. The bow hunters, in Oregon, in August, that made her feel threatened because they looked at her and implied that she had a desirable figure. That's quite strange considering that bow hunters don't carry cans of Pepsi and would be unable to hunt in Oregon at that time of year (nor would they want to) due to permit issues and hunting laws. Any bow hunter who took a deer before October 7th, 1996 would've been handed a hefty fine. One can say that perhaps they weren't hunting deer...but, it's not just deer that was out of season. Perhaps they were practicing...but, you don't need to hike out into the wilderness to practice. Every excuse leads to a further complication. And, frankly, without slut shaming, why does sexual attraction that she clearly went after and relished suddenly turn into a dangerous thing. Which is more dangerous? Two hunters who admire your figure or a man offering you alcohol and drugs who wants to drive you three hours from where you want to be in a strange car? For someone so at home with the outdoors and hikers and other people on the trail, the people who are EXPECTED scare her more than the real threats? On the topic of drugs- a habitual heroin user who takes to the trail to detox is not only stupid, but is putting other lives in danger. Did Cheryl consider how much time, money, and potential harm might have been done to those who might have had to pull her dead body out of the wilderness because she had a bad detox? How could she hike and carry a pack while experiencing the hellish pain and sickness that detoxing from a daily habit brings? Or, was she such a Mary Sue that she didn't experience detox? These are just three inconsistencies. This blog details at least thirty... I encourage you to read the comments. While each one can be written off individually...can they all be written off in totality?
10. CHERYL AS A HERO - Mrs. Strayed has obviously struck a chord with people. There's something about her story that resonates with people and I can't deny that. Her acknowledgement of poor choices and ultimate self-apology and acceptance may appeal to some people and, at first glance, it appealed to me. WHAT IF our choices didn't define us for the rest of our life? WHAT IF all of those bad things shaped you to be a better person. WHAT IF they gave you more compassion and a better understanding of the world. These are all NOBLE and ACCEPTABLE lessons to learn. But, sell the book as that! Cheryl could've had these revelations in a mall or in the safety of her home. She could've done a series of weekend hikes and it wouldn't have made the lessons less profound or valuable. So, with that in mind, it begs the question why this book is sold as a trail journal that just happens to give the writer redemption in her own eyes? I don't know the answer to that. But, I do know this. I do not want my nieces following Cheryl's example. Not because she slept around or did drugs. That's just life and while I don't want my nieces to get into the things Cheryl found herself in, I also acknowledge the imperfection of life and how we often regret the mistakes of our youth and grow from them. So, no... that's not the problem. The problem is that Cheryl only apologizes to herself. Her self acceptance comes at a cost to the people she hurt and waved off with the attitude that "well, what if the pain made them better". There's no way to make that stand up ethically. If I harm someone, even without purposefully meaning to, I owe them an apology. I don't get to apologize to myself and write off the wrongs. I want the young women I know to take ownership of their choices and apologize when they've wronged someone. The action of apologizing brings about a sense of responsibility and compassion that you don't get by self absolution. I also don't see her behaviors on the trail as admirable. There are other female hikers who are more "Bad Ass" and courageous than Cheryl. I think it's a mistake to hold her up as an example of the right way to hike and the right way to go about self acceptance.
These are just ten reasons to question the veracity and message of the book. Before you dismiss someone as a hater, ask yourself why they hate. Is it jealousy? Or, is there merit to their concerns? I invite Cheryl to explain away some of these issues. Unlike other places, discussion is encouraged here. READ THE BOOK CRITICALLY.
Many, many thanks to Tori for writing this. I'm honored to have her as a guest writer.
Please feel free to post your comments about this post without apprehension. We welcome sane, intelligent discussion and will not be disrespectful of your opinion. We may disagree with you-- and that's okay. People can and are allowed to disagree and can do so without name-calling or insults. If, however, you are disrespectful or incapable of reason, we will destroy you. Be advised.
Hugs and kisses,