Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Cheryl Strayed
336 pages, hardcover: $25.95. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

A well-worn hiking boot dominates the cover of Cheryl Strayed's new memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail. It's a striking symbol of tenacity and a visual reminder of how travelers braving the 2,663-mile trail would do well to pack humility and a sense of humor alongside their water filters and freeze-dried noodles.

At age 26, Strayed lost her mother to cancer. Devastated, she planned a hike from the Mojave Desert to Oregon's Cascade Locks -- solo. Wild swings from frantic to serene in tone as it describes how the author embarked on this ambitious journey, unsure whether she had the courage to go it alone. In ill-fitting boots, weighed down by an immense backpack, Strayed writes, "I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable."

She'd already borne a lot -- her mother's untimely death, her family's dissolution, a divorce, near-addiction to heroin. During the long months on the Pacific Coast Trail, she suffered from exhausted muscles and blackened toenails, cold and hunger and self-doubt. But Strayed sidesteps any hint of victim mentality in Wild. Instead, she draws on her personal journals to give a clear-eyed description of her surroundings, of the people she meets on the trail and the family and friends who populate her pre-trail life.

Hikers, backpackers and armchair travelers will likely find themselves captivated into the wee hours by Strayed's wry, vivid accounts of her adventures hiking in duct-taped sports sandals. She has some intriguing encounters along the way; at one point, when she's hitchhiking, the driver frightens her by reaching for something that could be a gun. Instead, it turns out to be a piece of licorice.

Still, she faces danger on the trek, as well as achieving unexpected moments of epiphany and redemption. It's the heroine's journey in the classic sense. Unlike Odysseus or other mythic  heroes, Strayed never boasts about her accomplishment. We understand that the hike was dirty and exhausting, emotionally as well as physically. But, thanks to the author's generosity of voice and heart, we also get to share some of the grace and wisdom she gained along the way.