Womancrush On Cheryl Strayed

Emilee2Emilee RussellFW University Ambassador 

When I was in middle school, my best friend and I swore to each other that we’d hike the Pacific Crest Trail before we died. We didn’t realize then and we still don’t fully grasp how huge of an undertaking that is. The Pacific Crest Trail is a national scenic trail that spans 2,663 miles from the United States-Mexican border to just north of the Canadian border - essentially the entire length of the west coast of the United States. People often hike chunks of it at a time and a only few experienced backpackers have hiked the trail in its entirety.

Last Christmas, I was given a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found On the Pacific Crest Trail and finished it in a couple of days, unable to put it down. She not only tells the story of her hike (from Mojave, California to Bridge of the Gods in Oregon) but also, through flashbacks and short narratives, explains exactly what led her to drive across the country from Minnesota to hike alone in the woods for several weeks. She had never been backpacking before in her life but was drawn to the trail because she somehow knew it would be the perfect way to find herself again.

Strayed was seeking an escape from the chaos and tragedy that had been plaguing her for the previous four years. Her mother had suddenly been diagnosed with cancer and died very soon after. Strayed’s mother had raised her and her siblings on her own, later moving to rural Minnesota and homesteading for several years. The loss of her mother was unbearable and in the wake of her death, other things in Strayed’s life began to unravel. Her marriage was collapsing and she began cheating on her husband. She briefly moved to Portland, Oregon where she met a man who introduced her to heroin and later got her pregnant. She had an abortion and realized that something had to change. She packed up her things, bought a load of supplies,  and set out on the trail not exactly sure of what she was doing but knowing that she had to do it. I’ll spare you the details because it really is an excellent read, but suffice it to say that my jaw dropped several times while reading all the incredible things she endured, on and off the trail.

I was immediately hooked on her writing and after hearing some of her interviews on the radio and watching her awesome TED Talk, I realized that it’s not just her writing voice or style that I was attracted to - her personality and demeanor is painfully honest about even the most unflattering aspects of herself. She embraces her flaws wholeheartedly - drug use, infidelity, bad choices all over, but her solid sense of self is evident. I was struck by how even-keeled and practical she seemed, even while she did impulsive and sometimes bizarre things. It is evident that even when she herself is unsure of her reasons or motives, she knows herself well enough to trust her instincts.

Besides her incredible honesty and frankness, I think the thing that draws me to Strayed and her work the most is that I can absolutely identify with her - not in the way that we sometimes compare ourselves to people we look up to in order to flatter ourselves, but in the less glamorous and more realistic aspects. Not only is Strayed a feminist, but also, she struck me as a true hero of working-class women. She grew up in a low-income family supported by a single mother and grew up to be fiercely self-sufficient and independent. She was a waitress with a drug problem and a failed marriage, and now she’s a bestselling author. I admire her and at the same time identify with her because she has worked hard for the things in her life and to better herself. I can appreciate her struggle because in some ways, I’ve felt it too, as so many other women have. She embodies a kind of girl-power that is rarely seen: it’s raw and unapologetic and all-encompassing.

I love Cheryl Strayed’s story because I feel like it’s similar to that of so many working-class women, and though we all have our own unique journey, we know the exhausting monotony of waitressing jobs, being broke, struggling to prove yourself, trying to make it on your own, harassment, losing people we love, shitty relationships, and bad, stupid decisions we come to regret. All of that.

Strayed strikes a remarkable balance, especially in Wild, by acknowledging how incredible and transformative her personal journey was and at the same time embracing the ways that she is average and ordinary. She never sets out to be anyone’s hero or to brag about how far she’s come. Her humility and modesty are just as incredible as her story itself.

One piece of wisdom that I have learned through Strayed’s work is how to “bear what you cannot bear.” She meant this literally, referring to her pack that she was hardly able to carry on the trail, and also figuratively referring to her mother’s death. For some reason, those words are so comforting to me when I am faced with something I feel is impossible for me, from coping with the shattering loss of someone I love or beginning a daunting, discouraging task full of self-doubt. That advice reminds me to take it one day at a time and that I will constantly surprise myself with what I can, in fact, bear.

I stumbled across Cheryl Strayed’s story when I needed it most, and that is why she is such an inspiration to me. Her words and her truths were exactly what I needed to tap into my truest self, to reaffirm my strength and my worth, to heal a wound that felt deeper and more painful every day, and to reassure myself that I was capable of building the life I wanted.

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