RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The 2,650-mile trail that is the Pacific Crest Trail winds its way from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington State. It's usually traversed by experienced hikers, or at least people who have spent months prepping for this trek. But Cheryl Strand decided to take on 1,100 miles of the trail alone on an impulse after a series of life-changing events. In her memoir, titled "Wild," Strand describes how this untamed piece of nature in America broke her down and eventually built her back up again. Cheryl Strand joins us from Portland, Oregon. Thanks so much for talking with us, Cheryl.
CHERYL STRAND: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to talk to you.
MARTIN: A lot led up to this journey. Your mom had died very early. She died of cancer. You got divorced. Your life kind of spiraled out of control. You got into drugs and had all these bad relationships with men. Why hike like this? This is pretty extreme. What about the idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail resonated with you at that time in your life?
STRAND: I think that I, on a very intuitive level, knew that the wilderness was going to be a place that was kind of home to me. I've grown up in rural northern Minnesota, and I think on some gut level I knew that the wild places of the Earth were going to offer me a sort of nurturing, that nurturing quality that we seek when we go home. But honestly, also, I think I was young and I've been leaping in all of these dangerous and self-destructive directions at the time of my life. And I was at the bottom, and I knew that I needed to find my way back up.
MARTIN: This is a grueling journey and you write a lot about the physical strain. You walked for months, right?
STRAND: Yes. I walked for a little more than three months. I was out there 94 days, and most of those days I didn't see another human soul. The first eight days of my trip I didn't see another human being, and that was very intense, especially to have it be right at the beginning like that, when I was really coming to grips with the fact that I had an awful lot to learn. This was going to be much more physically grueling than I thought. And, you know, I did go out there out of such a place of emotional suffering. And to go out there and to physically suffer really alleviated a lot of the emotional suffering. You know, suddenly I wasn't thinking about how I was going to live without my mother. I was thinking about how I was going to bear to walk another, you know, five miles that afternoon with these terrible blisters on my feet.
MARTIN: You write about being overwhelmed at several points in this journey. And I love the scene when you described that first night before you started the trail, when it sunk into you that maybe you can't even carry your pack.
STRAND: Yeah, it did more than sink in. I actually could not lift it. I could not even lift it a centimeter.
MARTIN: Tell me about your backpack. It got a name.
STRAND: It was just a few days into my hike that I gave it its name, Monster. It was the biggest backpack of anyone I encountered that whole summer, and maybe the biggest backpack that's ever existed.
MARTIN: And this backpack does kind of become a character. I mean, I couldn't help but conjure up those images of Tom Hanks in the movie "Castaway" with Wilson the volleyball, who's kind of his friend.
STRAND: It's funny. You're not the first person who's mentioned that film. And I haven't seen it. Clearly, I'm going to need to. But, you know, that backpack very much did feel to me like my only companion. You know, when it was sitting on the ground, I would put my hand on top of it and it felt as if I were, you know, caressing the head of the child I loved or something. And, you know, it's funny, later, it was only when I was writing "Wild" that I laughed so hard just the metaphorical meaning of that name. Because not only was it monstrously big, but I was also on that trail really examining some of my own internal monsters. My life at that time, it did feel like a weight that I couldn't bear. And to bear that monster all those days taught me a lot.
MARTIN: You were moving along this trail and you're picking up supply boxes along the way. And I love the description of the anticipation of these pit stops for you. How dependent were you on these moments, on these supply boxes?
STRAND: Utterly, utterly. Food does not taste any better than when, you know, you've walked 150 miles in the scorching heat over mountains. And you finally get to that tiny little post office that has your box, and in my case, in each box I packed a $20 bill along with, you know, the food and the re-supplies I would need. And I would get that $20 bill and I would go to whatever - sometimes it was a convenience store. If I was really lucky, there might be a restaurant there. And I would just eat like a ravenous beast.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: There was a moment in the book when you write about being really comfortable on the trail. I wonder, were you afraid to go back to whatever normal life is?
STRAND: Yeah. I was very afraid to go back because, I mean, it was an interesting contradiction, because, of course, I also really wanted to go back. I was so excited to go and have, you know, food and music and wine and books and just my life again. But I also, you know, I was fearful that I would go back and maybe I would lose what I had gained out there. I would forget that self that I had found. And that wasn't my overriding sense. I didn't think I could hold onto it. But there was some trepidation, certainly, as I reached the end of my trip. I both wanted to be done and wanted to, you know, make it last another while.
MARTIN: Cheryl Strand. Her memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is called "Wild." She spoke with us from Portland, Oregon. Cheryl, thanks so much for talking with us.
STRAND: Thank you. It's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.