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IoS book review: Wild: A Journey From Lost to Found, By Cheryl Strayed

The long walk back to contentment

Cheryl Strayed's Wild is nothing if not visceral: from the harrowing scene in which she and her brother have to put down a horse, to the state of Strayed's feet when mutilated by too-small boots, her in-your-face narration is completely immersive; a dynamic reading sensation that belies the fact that these events are two decades old.

A funny and fierce tale of the Oregon-based writer's 1995, three-month hike along America's Pacific Crest Trail, Wild is also about Strayed confronting the damage done by an abusive, then absent, father, and her mother's too-early death. As Strayed gears up for her trip in the wilderness, she banishes any fear of potential dangers: "nothing bad could happen to me … The worst thing already had."

Strayed tackles her 1,100 mile walk with a do-or-die determination that keeps the narrative pace pleasurably urgent and garners her unfettered admiration along the trail. Easily exhilarated by her surroundings – and just as rapidly humbled – she tolerates maximal physical discomfort: for most of the journey, she is a seething mass of blisters, bruises, rashes and scabs, and when she loses her hiking boots, she grimly forges on in the most basic of booties made of sandals and duct tape. She freezes in the cold and dehydrates in the heat; crosses deserts, snow fields and rock slides; communes with foxes, deer, a stray llama, and spectacular sunsets; and finds glorious moments of sustenance in the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Strayed's gutsy spirit is both pragmatically disciplined and reassuringly self-pampering: packages she's posted to herself at stops along the way include replacement books, trail mix, cash, and at one stage, a clean going-out outfit of her favourite Levi's, a fresh shirt and a brand-new black lace bra. (She promptly indulges in a 22-hour date with a brown-eyed, Michelle Shocked-loving man).

It is thanks to Strayed's cogent, generous voice that Wild retains its direction, never losing itself in murky personal-growth territory. In the acknowledgements, she thanks her writing group for "wise counsel, honest feedback and killer Pinot noir." Never mind the water in Oregon, there must be something in that wine.