Alpenglow and moon mirrored in Evolution Lake. Photo by Daniel Schlaepfer. Courtesy of the Pacific Crest Trail.

At age 22, Cheryl Strayed lost her 45-year-old mom to cancer. Within 7 weeks of learning that her mom was sick, Cheryl’s rock was gone. Over the next 4 years, Cheryl searched for answers in men, sex, and heroin. She sabotaged her marriage, her family scattered and she felt more alone than ever.

One fateful day, Cheryl’s car got stuck in a blizzard prompting her to go to REI to buy a shovel. Waiting in line, she picked up a guide to the Pacific Crest Trail and read the back, unaware that this book would change her life.

Just 6 months later Cheryl found herself in an 18-dollar hotel room in Mojave, CA. She struggled to put on her pack –named ‘Monster’ – laden with gear for the long haul and 24.5 pounds of water that she hoped would last a few days. But, after some creative gymnastics and shenanigans, Cheryl managed to hoist the enormous bag on her back, hitch a ride to the trailhead and begin her journey.

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Cheryl Strayed speaks at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast at OR. Photo by James Edward Mills. 

Cheryl had never done anything like this before. She didn’t have experience as a long distance hiker and in fact, she admits that in the hotel room the night before heading out, “I realized, I had never gone backpacking before – in my soul.”

Regardless, Cheryl pushed on to Oregon and completed the 94-day, 1100-plus mile journey. But, really this was only the beginning.

Cheryl would go on to become a wife, mother and an accomplished speaker and writer, sharing the details of her physical, emotional and spiritual journey in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This inspirational tale illuminates the human condition and is one we can all relate to: finding peace, beauty and ourselves by spending time pushing ourselves in nature.  It’s definitely worth a read.

Last week, I was lucky enough to hear Cheryl speak at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast at the Outdoor Retailer Show. She was charismatic, witty, charming and had all of us in the packed room laughing our asses off – no small task at 7 in the morning.

I caught up with Cheryl afterward. Despite a demanding scheduling, she was gracious enough to sit down and talk about her hike, the book and life after the PCT. Here are a few highlights.

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CK: Tell us more about the death of your mother. What did that do to you.

Cheryl: That day, my world ended.  I wasn’t sure, how can I bear this? The life I knew ended and the life I would have to go on living – without my mother – began. I was just in my early 20s so I was already trying to figure out who I was and now I had to figure out how to define myself when I have lost the person who was my definition. I tried a number of things, some good, but mostly bad. I really just tried to self- destruct. I think that by refusing to thrive without my mother, I was trying to honor her. To say: You are so important to me that I can’t live without you…and I’m gonna prove it by destroying myself.

CK: What happened when you picked up the book in REI?

Cheryl: When I picked up the book, I felt an immediate blossoming in my heart, like when something opens up inside. I could see that there was this beautiful, significant, grand thing much bigger than me. At that moment in my life, I was also buried.  I needed to dig myself out and I felt like I was none of those things – beautiful, significant, grand but I had this feeling that if I attached myself to something that was –  like the PCT, I could find that in me again and I could resurrect what had been lost.

CK: How did you make it happen from seeing the book while waiting in line to actually hiking the PCT?

Cheryl: A few days after seeing the book, the person who was inside of me, who knew who I actually was said you cannot go on this way. You cannot continue dishonoring your mother this way. I knew I had to do something big….. I had to take a journey not a little trip. I was suffering. I was in a state of despair and anytime people are in a state of despair, they are always looking for a way out. So, it was around that moment I decided I would hike the trail in Spring.

CK: What was your biggest fear?

Cheryl: That I wouldn’t be able to finish. That I wouldn’t do what I set out to do. I would not quit because I could not fail and yet I still feared that I would.

CK: How did you push though that?

Cheryl: I kept the faith. I’m not a religious person, but I believed in something bigger than me, something worth make sacrifices for. I believed in what I was doing and the only way I could do that was one-step at a time. I believed that I could do something bigger without giving up.

CK: What surprised you out on the journey?

Cheryl: I was seeking healing. I was trying to gather myself up back up to myself and heal my heart…to set myself on the right course. But, the way I got that was different than I expected. I thought I’d be out there thinking and crying at sunsets and processing, but I was really in my body. It was so much more physical than I expected and this is what healed me. There is something about enduring physical suffering teaches you something about how you can endure emotional suffering.

CK: What do you like best about Wild?

Cheryl: What’s so exciting to me about Wild is that it has been a consolation to people who have lost someone, it has been a consolation to people who believe they have **** their lives up and they can’t go forward. But, mostly I love it because it has become a story that helps people believe that wild places belong to them, too. You don’t have to be an expert to take a walk in the woods or to feel that connection to wild places…that belongs to all of us.

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Want the chance to hear Cheryl Strayed speak and work on your own wilderness writing?

Hosted by Theo Pauline Nestor, Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat (March 15-17, 2013 at Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort in Washington’s Cascade Mountains) will offer an opportunity for established and emerging memoirists to acquire new skills, build a writing community, and renew their vision as writers. Keynote speaker, Cheryl Strayed, author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller Wild, will talk about memoir’s “Big Deep Things”: how writers make meaning in memoir, excavating the layers within a narrative, and a writer’s use of intuition. Candace Walsh, Suzanne Finnamore, Ariel Gore, EJ Levy, and Theo Pauline Nestor will teach ten different classes focusing on the craft of literary memoir writing, the genre’s ethical and logistical challenges, and strategies for overcoming memoir’s most common obstacles.