Cheryl Strayed

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In March of 1991, Cheryl Strayed’s life is forever fractured when her beloved mother Bobbi is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer at only forty-five years old. A nature-loving non-smoker who has raised her children in the rural Northwoods of Minnesota, Cheryl’s mother’s illness is a sharp blow to the rest of her family. Cheryl and her stepfather Eddie stay by Bobbi’s side through her illness—though her doctor has given her a year to live, she makes it only thirty-four days after her diagnosis. Throughout Bobbi’s decline, Cheryl tries time and time again to get her siblings Karen and Leif to come visit the hospital. Though they love their mother, they cannot bear to see her in such a state. Karen visits only once, but Leif remains difficult to get a hold of. One night, as Bobbi’s condition worsens steeply, Cheryl leaves the hospital to track Leif down and bring him in to say goodbye. By the time they return to the hospital in the morning, Bobbi is gone, and Cheryl feels an animalistic grief take over her.

Over the next several years, Cheryl struggles to keep her life together in the face of her overwhelming grief, her ever-distant family’s apathy towards the prospect of staying united, and her crumbling marriage to her loving husband Paul. Cheryl pinballs around the country with Paul after he drops out of a graduate program in New York, eventually deciding to stay in Portland while Paul returns to Minnesota for a job. There, Cheryl falls in with a man named Joe—a heroin addict who soon gets Cheryl hooked, too. Cheryl’s best friend Lisa and Paul try desperately to intervene, but it isn’t until Cheryl realizes she is pregnant with Joe’s child that she is able to shake herself from the depths of her self-destructive new life. After finalizing her divorce from Paul, Cheryl decides to do something dangerous, new, and unthinkable: she wants to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave desert to Oregon, hoping to confront the mistakes and transgressions of the past several years and achieve some measure of peace, healing, and redemption along the way.

Cheryl prepacks several care packages herself containing money, supplies, and guidebooks for different parts of the trail and leaves them with her friend Lisa in Portland, asking her to mail them out as Cheryl makes her way along the trail. Cheryl purchases a huge backpack for herself, which she soon nicknames Monster after realizing how insanely heavy and difficult it is to carry once filled with all the supplies she will need for her three-month, 1,100-mile hike from Mojave, California to Portland, Oregon. In a pair of uncomfortable, too-small hiking boots and with only a few dollars in her wallet, Cheryl hitchhikes to the start of the trail and begins her odyssey.

The first leg of the trail is miserable and rough—Cheryl sustains many injuries, realizes she has filled her camp stove with the wrong kind of gas, and struggles under the weight of Monster as she climbs through the unforgiving desert landscape. She decides to detour from the path and flag down some help. A miner named Frank lets Cheryl stay with him and his wife for the night. After eating her first real meal in days and stopping at a camping supply store to get her stove fixed, Cheryl is ready to get back on the trail—but becomes chagrined when she hears about unprecedented snowfall in the Sierra Nevada and realizes her path is going to have to change. Cheryl continues pressing on, contending with bears, bulls, and black ants—but also forging connections with the hikers she begins to meet along the trail, including the fearless Greg, the adventurous hiking partners Doug and Tom, and the knowledgeable father-son duo of Albert and Matt.

Soon enough, Cheryl arrives at her first official resupply stop on the trail: Kennedy Meadows. There, she enjoys meeting other hikers, bathing in a rushing river, and eating her favorite snacks, and gets some help from Albert with winnowing the overstuffed “Monster” on her back shortly before he and his son succumb to diarrhea from drinking contaminated water and are forced to leave the trail for medical help. Doug gives Cheryl a beautiful raven feather for safekeeping, while Greg teaches Cheryl how to use an ice axe in preparation for facing down the Sierras up ahead. Back on the trail, however, Cheryl struggles to make her way across even a small ice patch. At a rendezvous with Doug and Tom, she decides to get off the trail and bypass the Sierras—the next day on her way to the main road, she runs into Greg, who is bypassing as well. Together they ride a Greyhound to Reno, then transfer to Truckee and hitch to Sierra City where they spend the night in adjoining rooms at a small lodge. Cheryl takes her first bath in ages, and is surprised when one of her toenails comes off in the water. She considers knocking on Greg’s door, but knows that in order to heal herself, she must find a way to stop compulsively searching for a warm body to distract herself when she’s feeling alone.

Back on the trail, Cheryl finds herself through the worst of the ice pack but still surrounded by snow—snow that obscures the trail, forcing her to wander uncertainly through the countryside. Cheryl encounters a beautiful fox, and when it runs away from her, she finds herself calling out “MOM.” Cheryl realizes that her mother will never return to her—but also realizes she’s beginning, slowly, to accept this fact deep in her core. After a stop at a wilderness lodge and an encounter with a greedy, elderly couple who refuse to let the flat-broke Cheryl camp on the edge of the site without paying, Cheryl is deflated and finds herself obsessing over traumatic memories from her past. Her spirit is bolstered, however, when back on the trail she meets a group of gregarious men who treat her to a night of drinking and conversation.

Cheryl makes it through the Sierra Nevadas at last, down two toenails but in higher spirits than ever. At Belden Town, Cheryl meets more friendly hikers, including the warm, welcoming Stacy and Trina and an experienced trekker named Brent who warns Cheryl that her boots are too small—and tells her that Greg has quiet the trail. Cheryl sets out with Stacy and Trina, but they get separated while hitchhiking back to the trail. Cheryl fields a strange interaction with a man who may or may not be named Jimmy Carter who tries to interview her for a publication called the Hobo Times, which may or may not exist, in spite of her protestations that she’s a hiker, not a hobo. Cheryl eventually gets a ride with a couple named Spider and Lou, and learns that Lou suffered the loss of her son five years ago. The women commiserate over the pain of losing a loved one, and after parting ways tenderly, Cheryl meets up with Stacy and Trina on the trail.

Cheryl hangs behind Stacy and Trina at the start of a section of the trail marked by a desolate plateau. In spite of the rough terrain coming up, Cheryl feels stronger than ever. She has come to see Monster as an extension of herself, and though her feet are still battered, blistered, and bruised, her body feels more capable every day. On the plateau, Cheryl nearly runs out of water when the source mentioned in the guidebook—a water tank—is dry. Cheryl pumps muddy water from a nearby pond through her purifier and further cleans it using iodine tablets. After such a close call and her most dangerous moment on the trail yet, Cheryl is exhausted, and seeks rest at a small town off the trail.

There, she meets a gay and gregarious hiker named Rex who, upon seeing Cheryl’s ruined feet, tells her that she can get new boots from REI free of charge with simply a phone call. Cheryl reunites with Trina and Stacy, but Trina announces she’s quitting the trail. Cheryl loses two more toenails while waiting for her boots to arrive—only to learn that REI will need five days to get them to her. Knowing she must stay on-schedule, Cheryl reluctantly sets off to her next stop, Castle Crags, wearing only her camp sandals. As Cheryl moves onwards, the terrain is unforgiving and often obscures the path ahead, but Cheryl is confident enough in her navigational skills to pick up “record speed” as she approaches Castle Crags. There, she finally obtains her new boots, and reads sentimental letters that have arrived for her from Paul, Joe, and Karen. Cheryl drinks heavily with some other hikers and gets terribly sick, but fights through her hangover in the morning to get back on the trail—she has only one more stop before reaching Oregon.

Even with her new boots, Cheryl’s feet remain painful and the terrain remains difficult. She begins to have strange, upsetting dreams about a man in a Bigfoot costume, and she endures disappointment when she, Rex, and Stacy head off-course to attend a hippie meetup called the Rainbow Gathering only to find it is a sparsely-populated bust of a time. Back on the trail by herself after the failed Gathering, Cheryl’s mood lightens as she has some charming encounters with a pair of llama owners and a wild deer and takes in the splendor of the vistas all around her. Cheryl, confronted with the beauty of nature and the kindness of all the strangers she’s met, cries for the first time on the trail—not out of grief or pain, but out of sheer overwhelm. As Cheryl approaches Oregon, she finds herself contending with heavy rain day in and day out. She meets up with Stacy, who tells Cheryl she’s bypassing the trail and getting a ride to Ashland, and informs her that Rex has decided to get off, too. Cheryl arrives in Ashland, Oregon for a stopover to find that the town is full of hippie mourners—Jerry Garcia has died, and celebrations of his life are taking place all throughout town. Cheryl receives a resupply box full of extra cash and some “normal” clothes.

She enjoys a night out on the town and meets an attractive man named Jonathan, and agrees to go on a date with him the following night. After listening to Jonathan’s band play a set at a local club the next night, Cheryl accompanies Jonathan out to the cooperative farm where he lives, and the two of them spend the night talking, stargazing, and kissing. The next morning, the two of them go for a picnic on the beach. While walking down the rocky shore, Cheryl debates whether or not to sleep with Jonathan—she has come on this journey to be redeemed and washed clean of her old habits, but she is beginning to wonder whether she never needed redemption at all, and whether all the choices she made were the right ones all along. She and Jonathan have sex, and then he drives her back into town, where she excitedly gets back on the trail.

Cheryl arrives at Crater Lake on her mother’s birthday—August 18th. She feels angry with her mother for dying and leaving her, but after a visit to the sacred, beautiful lake, which was formed out of a barren hole in the top of a mountain called Mazama after a volcanic eruption some 7,000 years ago, Cheryl begins to understand the healing process and longs to let go of her grief. With only 334 miles to go to the Bridge of the Gods—the landmark Cheryl has chosen to mark the end of her hike—Cheryl feels renewed, capable, and a little bit melancholy at the thought of leaving the trail behind. At her next stop, Cheryl meets a band of charming hikers in their early twenties called the Three Young Bucks. She hikes with them on and off for several days, bolstered by their company—but during a night alone, she has a fearsome encounter with two bow hunters who make lewd comments about Cheryl’s body and keep pointing out how profoundly alone she is out in the wild. The men don’t harm Cheryl, but the incident shakes her, and she breaks camp in spite of the darkness around her to run in the opposite direction from them. The next day, Cheryl reunites with the Three Young Bucks at a rustic “resort” on a beautiful lake. They excitedly tell her that she’s officially been given a trail nickname: The Queen of the PCT, chosen because of her remarkable, innate ability to get perfect strangers to go out of their way to do nice things for her. Lisa and her boyfriend surprise Cheryl at the resort and drive her and the Bucks to a hot spring for a day. Cheryl revels in how lucky she is to have such great friends, new and old.

After meeting up with Doug, Tom, and a couple other hikers on the trail and hiking with them, Cheryl decides that she is determined to reach the end of her journey alone. Cheryl continues losing toenails even as she “floats” the final few miles to Cascade Locks and the Bridge of the Gods. At the landmark bridge, Cheryl stands at the halfway point and looks down into the river below. She at last understands that her journey was never about one single destination or one cohesive healing process, and unceremoniously she leaves the bridge to get some ice cream. From the future, Cheryl writes that, years later, she would return to that very ice cream shop with her husband and later, their two children. Cheryl looks back on the end of her hike with reverence for her younger self, who had the strength to undertake something enormous in spite of not being sure of what it would give her. “How wild it was,” the older Cheryl reflects,” to let it be.”