Cheryl Strayed looks over the edge of a steep mountain slope in Northern California. After taking her hiking boots off for a moment, she has accidentally dropped her left boot over the edge. She is stunned as she tries to comprehend that her boot is actually gone. Though she clings to the right boot, she realizes that “one boot without the other boot” is useless. Feeling a sudden wave of anger towards the right boot, Cheryl chucks it, too, over the mountainside.
Wild begins in medias res, or in the middle of the action. Strayed is giving readers a glimpse of the kind of simultaneously dire and dull struggles that she is going to face along the Pacific Crest Trail—and showcasing her particular brand of stubborn willfulness.
It is the summer of 1995, and Cheryl is alone, barefoot, and twenty-six years old in the middle of the 2,663-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). She is effectively an orphan—her father left her family when she was six, and her mother passed away four years ago. Her family has fallen apart under the weight of their shared grief. Cheryl has come to the PCT in hopes of transforming herself “into the woman [she knows she can] become” while simultaneously turning herself back into the girl she once was.
Cheryl gives the entire ethos for her trip up-front, demonstrating how her competing desires to indulge her grief and to move backwards in time are acting upon her over the course of her journey.
Cheryl first heard about the PCT only seven months earlier, while living in Minneapolis “sad and desperate and on the brink of divorc[e].” She picked up a book about the PCT by chance, and read about how it stretched from the Mexican border in California all the way up into Canada, along the crest of nine different mountain ranges. Though the idea of hiking the trail was “vague and outlandish,” it ignited something within Cheryl. The way Cheryl saw it, she’d been so many things already that being “a woman who walks alone in the wilderness for eleven hundred miles” seemed like a piece of cake. After enduring the loss of her mother, a failed marriage, and a slew of drug-fueled one-night-stands, Cheryl felt she had nothing to lose by setting out on the PCT.
Cheryl continues outlining the multiple factors that have driven her to the PCT. She feels she has “nothing to lose,” but at the same time realizes that, at the lowest point in her life so far, she has everything to gain. Cheryl’s PCT hike is a desperate call to action within herself—a radical move meant to completely transform the landscape of both her physical circumstances and her inner world.
Now, as she stands barefoot on the edge of a mountain, Cheryl realizes just how little her experiences actually prepared her for hiking the PCT. Each day on the trail, she is learning, is “the only possible preparation for the one that follow[s.]” Cheryl is six weeks into the hike, and though over the last month and a half her boots have become a kind of extension of herself, she slowly manages to bring herself to feel peace about losing them. Cheryl looks down at her “bare and battered feet”—most of her toenails have come off, and her feet and legs are covered in bruises and scratches. As tired as she is, Cheryl knows there is only one thing to do: keep walking.
This moment is just one of many Cheryl will encounter along the PCT in which she is presented, at the height of her frustration and pain, with only two options: keep walking, or double back. Cheryl’s entire journey is about transforming herself and her life—she knows that although going back is technically an option, for her, going back means failure, calamity, and maybe even death.