As soon as I read a review of the book Wild I knew I had to read it. Everything about it resonated with me. A solo adventure in the outdoors, breaking free from society’s normal rules and confines. But ultimately what grabbed me and drew me in irrevocably is hinted at in the sub-heading, ‘A Journey from Lost to Found’. Wild is ultimately a book about Cheryl Strayed’s journey through grief after the death of her mother.
When Cheryl Strayed was 22 her mother, who had bought up Cheryl and her siblings alone, died of cancer. In the aftermath of that traumatic event her family fractured, her marriage broke down, she got involved with people who were bad for her and she took heroine.
Four years later at the age of 26, recognising she needed to do something to stop the downward spiral she was caught in, Cheryl spent three months trekking 1100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada through the mountains of America’s west. In so doing she rediscovered who she was in the new uncertain, and sometimes frightening, world without her mother in it.
While Cheryl’s upbringing and family background are very different to mine, the echoes with my life are striking. In May 1993 my father, my biggest fan and the rock on which my foundations rested, died of cancer. I was 21.
The next year I graduated from the London School of Economics with the expectation of great things on my shoulders. Instead I threw those expectations aside, bought a ticket to Sydney and in January 1995 escaped from everything I’d known. It wasn’t until I too was 26 that I found my way back again.
“Her death….obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up…at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off.”
This quote from the book describes my experience exactly. Because I too was full of the arrogance of youth until my father died. On his death my world had shattered into a thousand pieces and I had no idea how to put it back together again.
In Oz I abandoned the squeaky clean good-girl that I once had been, threw caution to the wind, took a lot of drugs (not heroine I hasten to add), had relationships with unsuitable men, and revelled in having no-one checking up on me or even probably caring about me most of the time.
Doesn’t every twenty-something go off the rails? Maybe, maybe not, but even at the time I had a vague idea of what I was doing. My father had lived life by the rules, he was the straightest, most reliable man I knew, and it hadn’t done him any good. He’d still been cruelly taken from his young family at the age of 57, so I thought, why the hell should I live by the rules too, it doesn’t seem to get you anywhere.
After three years living a hedonistic life of clubbing, misbehaving and getting all of the anger I had at life out of my system, I pulled myself together. I dragged myself away from a relationship that I finally recognised was destroying my confidence and going nowhere, and bought a one way ticket back to London to find myself a more secure life back in the UK. At 26 I was ready to go back to ‘real’ life.
In Cheryl Strayed’s journey I found my truths laid bare, my youthful pain given a voice, and my struggles shared. It touched more than a raw nerve. She is a similar age to me, and it’s a book I could have written, with different protagonists, slightly different experiences, but the same trajectory. I haven’t trekked the PCT, but I’ve journeyed from lost to found.
I often wonder how my life would have gone if my father hadn’t died then, or at all. Would I have become the national news reporter I wanted to be? Would I have a more traditional and obviously ‘successful life’ than I have now?
In my darker moments I look into the eyes of that 23-year-old girl and fear I have let both her and my father down by not achieving the conventionally successful life he dreamt of for me. But if I’m honest the seeds of rebellion were already there. I’d already taken a year out before uni to go travelling in America. I’d already recognised that the traditional trajectory wasn’t for me and had started to search out career options that didn’t involve becoming a cog in the wheel of big business.
Yes, maybe with my father alive I would have felt a deeper sense of responsibility to make the best of the opportunities he’d given me. I think my mother, never the career-focussed one, felt she couldn’t push the point because it would have been cruel to do so, I had enough to deal with. With my father behind me maybe I would have had the guts to follow my dream to be a TV reporter instead of fearing that I wasn’t good enough.
But that’s my life. It is what it is, I made the choices I made because they felt right at the time, and while things haven’t turned out as I once hoped they would, I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. It’s not over until it’s over, I’ve plenty more of life to live, and I still have dreams I want to pursue. It may not be a picture perfect life, but it’s mine and I’m pretty happy with it.
Get a copy of Wild by Cheryl Strayed from Amazon – Kindle version also available.