Wild: Chapter Summaries
The prologue begins with a dramatic moment thirty-eight days into Cheryl Strayed’s hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, when Strayed’s left hiking boot goes tumbling off the edge of the trail into a forest canopy far below. Although stunned by the boot’s fall, Strayed is not surprised, having already learned at this point that anything that can happen on the trail inevitably will happen. 26 years old, alone in the wilderness, and now shoeless, Strayed sees the falling boot as a metaphor for how she herself has been pitching over the edge for quite some time.
In the years and months leading up to her journey through the wild, she lost her mother to cancer, watched her siblings and family drift apart, and divorced her husband. These experiences lead her to the Pacific Crest Trail, a continuous trail along the Sierra Nevada mountain range spanning from the Mexican border to Canada. Strayed had heard of the trail only 7 months prior to the boot incident, when she picked up a guidebook about it in an outdoor store. Reading the book awakened in her a sudden urge to experience the trail for herself and regain some control over her life by conquering the wilderness. As Strayed gazes at the trees that have swallowed up her shoe, she considers her options and realizes that there is only one: to keep on walking.
Part One: The Ten Thousand Things
Chapter 1: The Ten Thousand Things
The chapter “The Ten Thousand Things” describes in detail the many factors that led up to Strayed’s decision to go on a three-month solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. There are, she explains, many different stages, from the spontaneous decision to go, to the actual decision to go, to the actual going. However, at the heart of everything that led up to the trail was the death of Strayed’s mother when Strayed was 22.
The moment she learned her mother was going to die, Strayed was in a small room at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. There, the doctors announced to Strayed, her mother, and her stepfather Eddie that her mother had end-stage lung cancer and only a year to live. The injustice of this hit Strayed hard. Her mother was 45, vegetarian-ish, and a non-smoker. People like that were not supposed to get cancer. Upon hearing the news, Strayed and her mother both headed to the women’s restroom, where they each took up separate stalls and sobbed, joined by their grief but separated by their private experiences of it.
Strayed’s mother got pregnant at the age of 19 and married an abusive man who she didn’t manage to leave until she was 28. By then she had three children: Karen, Cheryl, and Leif, whom she loved whole-heartedly. The family settled in Minnesota, where Strayed’s mother met her stepfather Eddie. They bought a stretch of property about an hour outside of Duluth, Minnesota, and Strayed spent her teen years living there and helping to build up their house. When she started her freshman year of college in the Twin Cities, her mother came with her, determined to get her BA as well. However, during their senior year, Strayed’s mother was diagnosed, and neither ended up getting a degree.
Although the doctors at the Mayo Clinic promised a year, Strayed’s mother ended up lasting only a month. Strayed was the only one of her siblings to spend significant time with her mother once she got sick, and she dealt with the pain of watching her mother suffer and go into hospice care. As her mother grew weaker, Strayed tracked down her 18-year-old brother Leif, who had not visited even once since the diagnosis. By the time she brought Leif to the hospital, Strayed’s mother had passed away only an hour before.
After her mother’s death, Strayed would have dreams in which she killed her mother again and again. In her dreams, Strayed’s mother would command her to kill her, and Strayed would beg her not to but would eventually comply. The nightmares were so realistic that Strayed would wake up screaming, but nothing could make the dreams go away.
Chapter 2: Splitting
As the name suggests, “Splitting” documents the fragmentation of Strayed’s family and friends in the years following her mother’s death. In the four years between the death of her mother and the start of her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed traveled all over the country, but always came back to Minnesota as a home base. However, by the time Strayed began her hike in Mojave, California, she knew she’d be leaving Minnesota for good. She even visited her mother’s grave in the woods of their family’s land to apologize that no one would be there to care for her gravesite anymore. But Strayed reasoned that her mother wasn’t there anymore, anyway.
Arriving in Mojave the night before the start of her hike, Strayed stayed at the cheapest motel she could find. The old woman at the counter informed her that the cost would be more if Strayed planned on being joined by a companion, but Strayed insisted she was traveling alone. Once in her hotel room, Strayed was tempted to go to a bar and find a “companion” as the woman had called it to bring back to the room, but she resisted. She also resisted the urge to call Paul, the husband she had recently divorced. She thought back to what Paul had said to her when they said goodbye 10 days before: that she finally got what she wanted—to be alone.
But it wasn’t so much that Strayed wanted to be alone as it was that she didn’t know what she wanted when it came to love. The troubles between Strayed and Paul had begun a week after her mother’s death, when Paul received a letter of acceptance for a PhD program in New York City. Convinced that she needed to stay in Minnesota to keep her family together, Strayed tried to convince Paul to go alone, but instead he deferred enrollment for a year. During that year Strayed realized that she could not keep her family together as she had hoped she might. Her siblings drifted and her stepfather Eddie slowly became more distant.
In that time, Strayed also began to kiss other men. She never crossed a sexual line with them, but still she felt terrible about cheating and lying to Paul. When they finally moved to New York, she promised herself that she would have new start and stop messing around with other men. But nothing changed, and Paul dropped out of the PhD program to play music. Six months after coming to New York, they left again and went on a long road trip. Strayed tried to convince herself she could be a good wife to Paul, but when Paul went back to Minneapolis to start a new job, Strayed stayed behind in Oregon a little longer and had sex with three men in the span of five days. By the time she returned to Minneapolis she had made up her mind that she needed to be alone. She went back and confessed everything to Paul, who moved out the next day. Three months into her separation with Paul, Strayed quit her waitressing job and drove west to visit her friend Lisa in Portland. Her mother had been dead three years.
Chapter 3: Hunching in a remotely Upright Position
The morning she began her hike, Strayed woke up in the motel in Mojave, put on her hiking outfit, and examined herself in the mirror. She wanted to call Paul more than ever but knew she shouldn’t because he would sense her anxiety was about greater things than simply beginning the hike. Instead, she opened the compartments of her pack and looked over her belongings—the only things she would have with her for the next few months.
These included such items as a sleeping bag, a camp chair, a water purifier, a collapsible stove, a tarp, a first-aid kit, and other necessities. She had brought along Staying Found: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I: California, which was the same guidebook that had inspired her to start the journey in the first place. She also had with her William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, and a sketchbook she used as a journal.
All of the backpacking gear she had purchased during about a dozen trips to REI in the previous months, where she had carefully weighed the pros and cons of each model. By the time she finished purchasing everything, she felt like a backpacking expert even though she had never technically been backpacking. But as she stared at all the gear in Mojave, Strayed was suddenly profoundly aware that she was not at all prepared for the journey ahead of her.
Before leaving the motel, Strayed remembered to fill her two 32-oz bottles and 2.6 gallon dromedary bag with water. The place she had chosen to begin her hike was one of the driest segments of the Pacific Crest Trail, so she needed to carry a lot of water until she could reach her next water source. She later learned that water weighs 8.3 pounds a gallon, and that she had carried 24.5 pounds of water alone that first day, in addition to the weight of everything else in her pack.
The bag was so unwieldy that Strayed could barely get it on, but eventually, after many attempts, she managed to get it on her back. She described the feeling as like have a Volkswagen Beetle attached permanently to her body. The weight felt terrible, but maybe that was how it felt to be a backpacker, Strayed wasn’t sure. All she knew was that it was time to go.
Part Two: Tracks
Chapter 4: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I: California
Leaving the motel, Strayed walked to a nearby gas station, where she tried to hitch a ride to the Pacific Crest Trail. She had done a lot of dumb and dangerous things in her life, but up until that point had never attempted to hitchhike. But The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I: California had explained that hitchhiking was a necessary part of the process and the only practical way to get to and from the trail. She observed a lot of people but everyone either had a full car or she feared might be murderers or rapists.
After some time, she finally worked up the nerve to ask two men traveling in a minivan for a ride. They reluctantly agreed, but were friendlier once Strayed was inside the car. They commented on how heavy her pack was, but Strayed insisted she could lift it. After they dropped her at the trail, she waited until they had driven out of sight before attempting to try to get the pack on her back, not wanting them to see what a struggle it was for her.
On the fence by the highway was small metal blaze labeled Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed wrote her name and the date in a trail register by the fence post, and, nervous but excited, began to walk. Within 40 minutes, however, she was already wondering what she had gotten herself into. The pack was so heavy it was almost unbearable. To distract herself from the weight, she kept an eye out for rattlesnakes. Strayed had decided months before beginning the journey that the only way she would make it as a female hiker traveling alone was to live without fear. And anyway, she was exerting herself too much to be afraid.
Hiking on the trail was different than Strayed had imagined six months earlier when she first decided to do the journey for real. She had been driving with her friend Aimee east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota when Strayed first saw the PCT guidebook. That same trip, she had discovered she was pregnant and decided to have an abortion.
The father was Joe, a man she had met the previous summer in Portland, when she had gone to visit Lisa and escape her marital troubles. Joe had introduced Strayed to heroin and she moved in with him soon after they met. That summer she began using heroin more and more frequently until she was confronted first by Lisa, and then by her separated husband Paul, who drove all the way to Portland to try to talk her out of it.
Strayed left Joe to go back to Minneapolis with Paul, but on the way back they fought terribly. Several weeks later, she slept with Joe again when he came to Minneapolis to visit, and several weeks after that Strayed discovered she was pregnant in Sioux Falls. It was then that she decided that her life had gotten too out of control and that something had to change. She got an abortion and began planning her trip on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Only three hours into the trail, however, Strayed was already too exhausted to go on. In all her ruminations over gear at REI, she had never thought to consider weight, although several employees had mentioned it. Strayed realized she was done for the day and, too tired to light her stove, she skipped dinner and pitched her tent. Inside, she pulled out Adrienne Rich’s book of poems, The Dream of a Common Language. She had read the book so often she had practically memorized it. On that first night of the trail, she read the first poem aloud, over and over and over. It was called “Power.”
Chapter 5: Tracks
Strayed woke on the trail at dawn but couldn’t bring herself to get up for another hour. When she finally crawled out of her tent, her muscles were stiff from the previous day’s hike. Strayed forced herself to eat breakfast and then began to walk, already feeling more experienced than she had been the previous day.
The hike was uphill, and the day cold and rainy. Strayed was no longer thinking What have I gotten myself into? Instead, she could only think of moving forward and the physical needs of her body. She had planned to average 14 miles a day, but on day two was already significantly behind. Too tired to make it all the way to the water source Golden Oak Springs, she pitched her tent and went to sleep.
The third day, Strayed finally made it to the springs. Even though she had planned to keep going, she spent the day by the springs treating her already numerous blisters and bruises. One bruise—a small black one on her ankle—was not from the trail but rather from heroin. Strayed had shot up with Joe in Portland right before the trip even though she had been clean the previous six months in Minneapolis. This bruise was the reason Strayed had not wanted to call Paul that first night in the motel.
At Golden Oak Springs, Strayed tried to use her stove for the first time only to discover that she had bought the wrong kind of gas, and that the stove was unusable. On the fourth day she came across mountain lion tracks, and also realized that the landscape had begun to change from that of an arid desert to terrain dense with trees. On the fifth day, Strayed was charged at and almost mauled by a Texas longhorn bull. She yelled “Moose!” and jumped away with her eyes closed. When she opened her eyes, the bull had gone, but she was unsure of which direction it went. Having few options, she decided to continue moving forward.
On the eighth day, Strayed realized that with the broken stove, she had eaten almost all food that didn’t require cooking. Lisa was shipping her a resupply box in Kennedy Meadows, but that was 135 trail miles away, and at the pace she was going she would never make it on the food she had. She reached a crossroad and decided to walk off the trail, reasoning that she would eventually find civilization since there was a highway 20 miles east of the trail.
After 4 hours, Strayed regretted her decision to leave the trail. She was lost and alone and had not seen another person for eight days. Eventually she came across three men in a pickup truck, who informed her that she had walked into a mining site. One of the men, Frank, decided that Strayed would stay with him and his wife for the night. While waiting for Frank to finish work before taking her to his home, she discovered a flask of whiskey and a gun in his car. She feared she was in danger, but when Frank returned, all he did was offer her some licorice.
Chapter 6: Bull in Both Directions
Strayed spent the night at Frank’s trailer home, where his wife Annette fed her and let her shower. The next morning Frank dropped her at a convenience store on the highway and gave her instructions to catch a ride to a town called Ridgecrest. Strayed hitchhiked again, this time with a man named Troy who drove a truck distributing chips. He left her at an Outdoor Supply store in Ridgecrest, where Strayed managed to have her stove cleaned and repaired. Strayed decided to spend a night in Ridgecrest before returning to the trail.
The motel owner, named Bud, offered to wash her dirty clothes and gave her the only room with a tub after discovering that Strayed wore a POW bracelet. Bud was a Vietnam veteran himself, so he was very appreciative of that sort of thing.
Bud also informed Strayed that there had been a lot of snow in the Sierra Nevada that year, so she may have trouble later on the trail. Strayed called the local office of the Bureau of Land Management. The lady who answered confirmed that there had been a record snowfall, and upon learning Strayed was hiking the PCT, offered to drive her back to the trail. Reentering the trail, Strayed felt energized and accomplished, and like the luckiest person alive. The next day she crossed several landslides and too tired to continue, camped after hiking only 8.5 miles. As she got ready for bed, she realized that for the first time it was not cold at night.
The following day the heat was so intense that for the first time since she started 10 days before, Strayed wanted to quit. She had wanted to hike the trail in order to reflect on her life and heal from her past, but she was so consumed with her physical difficulties that there was no time for self-meditation. She was crazy to have attempted this, she thought. She decided that at the next road crossing she would walk toward the highway and hitch a ride home.
Just then, another hiker appeared and said, “you must be Cheryl Strayed.” Strayed was shocked to see another person on the trail, let alone someone who knew her by name. She later learned that this was standard practice on the trail, as PCT hikers checked the trail registers to see who else was hiking in front of them. The man’s name was Greg. He had started on the trail at the Mexico border in early May and planned to go all the way to Canada.
Strayed was happy to have Greg’s company, but intimidated when she learned Greg averaged 22 miles a day and was a much more seasoned hiker than she. He commented on her large, heavy pack and the fact that she was the only woman he’d met on the trail or seen on the registers so far. Greg hiked ahead but promised they would meet again in Kennedy Meadows, where he planned to stay a few days. There, they would make a plan for handling the snow in the Sierra.
Newly encouraged by Greg’s faith in her, Strayed decided not to quit just yet and was determined to make it to Kennedy Meadows. That day as she hiked she saw a bear on the trail and terrified, used her whistle. She also decided to name her backpack Monster, in an affectionate tribute to its bulk. The next morning Strayed met two more hikers, Albert and Matt, a father-son duo from Georgia. Like Greg, they commented on her giant pack. They also informed her that two guys her age named Doug and Tom were not far behind.
Determined not to let Doug and Tom pass her, Strayed quickened her pace. It occurred to her that the trail was the hardest thing she had ever done, but she immediately dismissed this though. She had watched her mother die and divorced Paul and fallen into a dark hole of heroin. But hiking was difficult in a different way. As she walked, Strayed contemplated her last name, which she had chosen for herself after divorcing Paul. It seemed to fit her wandering life.
The day she and Paul signed their divorce papers, they had both cried and kissed in the Minnesota April snow. She wondered if they would have been able to stay together, had her mother not died. “Cheryl Strayed,” Paul had called her as they said goodbye, the name sounding strange on his lips. She had let him go.
Chapter 7: The Only Girl in the Woods
When Strayed reached Kennedy Meadows, she picked up the resupply package that Lisa had sent ahead for her, along with a postcard sent by Joe. The postcard left her with a series of confusing emotions—she was happy to have mail and nostalgic for Joe, but sad that no one else had written, and that the only letter she had received had been from Joe rather than Paul. Strayed headed to the campsite, where she met Ed, a “trail angel” who ran the campsite and looked after PCT hikers. Ed informed her that Greg, Albert, and Matt were already there and had been betting on who would make it first: Strayed or the two boys behind her. Strayed had beat them, but no one had been betting on her.
After dinner, Strayed opened her package, which contained food, a fresh t-shirt, and a book by Flannery O’Connor. On the trail, Strayed had begun to burn parts of her books after she read them. She hated to do it, but was desperate to lighten her load. After examining the book, Strayed asked Albert to help lighten her pack. He sorted out all the objects she didn’t need, including a collapsible saw, a camera lens, and even, to Strayed’s embarrassment, a pack of condoms. She held her ground on keeping her books and her journal, though. After they finished, Strayed was ecstatic to find that her pack was significantly lighter and more manageable than before.
Soon after, the group was joined by Doug and Tom, the two hikers who had been trailing Strayed. Realizing that she was the only woman among a large group of men, Strayed for the first time in her life tried to fit in as “one of the guys.” She hung out more with Doug and Tom, and Greg taught her how to use her ice pick. Before returning to the trail, Strayed placed her discarded belongings in a PCT Hiker Free Box in the general store. She realized that something was missing: someone had taken the discarded role of condoms.
Part Three: Range of Light
Chapter 8: Corvidblogy
Upon rejoining the trail at Kennedy Meadows, Strayed walked the first quarter mile with Doug and Tom, but then made up an excuse to stay behind a few minutes to walk alone. It was her first day of week three on the trail. She eventually caught up with Doug and Tom and camped with them for the night, wondering which of them had taken the condoms from the free box (they were the two most logical choices to take them).
The next day while hiking alone Strayed came across her first large swath of snow and with her ice ax managed to make it across, using Doug and Tom’s tracks as a guide. Crossing the snow made her realize what a challenge it would be to get across the Sierra by herself. The snow would be dangerous on the incline and could make her accidentally go off the trail. Strayed decided the glory of seeing the High Sierra wouldn’t be worth the risk. She would get off the trail at Trail Pass and rejoin at Sierra City in order to bypass the snow.
Doug and Tom decided to push on, but to Strayed’s relief, seasoned-hiker Greg had decided to bypass also. They learned that there were no direct buses to Sierra City, so instead the two caught a bus to Reno, Nevada. There, they stopped briefly in a small casino, where Strayed realized she was running very short on money. In the bathroom of the casino, a woman commented on a feather that Doug had given Strayed as a good luck charm.
The woman told her the feather was a corvid, coming from a raven or a crow, and that it symbolized the void. This was a good thing, the woman insisted, because voids released energy. They were places where things were born and began.
Strayed and Greg hitched a ride to Sierra City, and stayed at a hotel that included a bar and restaurant. Greg invited her to dinner, and though she wasn’t attracted to him, the invitation made her blush. She wondered whether it was Greg who had taken the condoms from the Free Box instead of Doug or Tom. Between dinner and the hotel room, she had only sixty-five cents left until her next resupply box. Strayed took a bath, after which she mentioned to Greg that she had been losing toenails.
Greg told her that this indicated that her boots were too small. As she went to bed, she could hear Greg in the room next to her and thought back to a time she had briefly seen a therapist named Vince the previous year. Strayed had confessed to Vince that she was like a guy when it came to sex—capable of being detached. Vince mentioned that maybe her father was at fault, and Strayed thought back to the violence and abuse she had witnessed and experienced as a child. She saw Vince the therapist a couple times, but when he told her he was leaving his position, she never called the new therapist he recommended. She felt that her problems and grief ran too deep for a therapist to solve.
Chapter 9: Staying Found
In the morning, Greg and Strayed walked from Sierra City back to the trail, where they said their goodbyes and Greg hiked ahead. Having bypassed such a large section of the trail, Strayed’s new plan was to hike through Oregon to a bridge on the border with Washington called The Bridge of Gods. Strayed was excited to be back on the trail, but that excitement soon waned as she reached a new patch of snow. She had left her ice ax in the PCT hiker free box in Sierra City, thinking that there would be no more snow in this section of the trail. She walked carefully using her ski pole and consulted her compass. Even so, she was afraid she had lost the path. A nickel fell out of her pocket in the snow, and she realized she now had only 60 cents. In the distance she saw some skiers and yelled across to them “WHERE ARE WE?” but all they answered in reply was an unhelpful “CALIFORNIA!”
The next day, Strayed continued walking in the snow but was unsure of her surroundings. She kept passing trees that looked familiar and felt she was going in circles. Strayed thought about Paul, who would surely have admonished her for being foolish enough to hike alone in the snow. She thought back to when he had lectured her about the heroin, saying that she could have died. Every time she did heroin, he said, was like playing Russian roulette. Strayed knew Paul was right, but at the time she had done heroin it hadn’t seemed so dangerous.
On her third day from Sierra City, Strayed realized that the previous day had been the fourth of July, although you wouldn’t think it from the snow that surrounded her. She came across a fox in a clearing, which stared at her for a while before walking away. As the fox left, Strayed called out after him, only to realize that she was calling “MOM!” over and over instead. The next morning she reached a road and with relief thought she had made it to a town called Quincy. On the road, the driver of an SUV offered to drop her at Packer Lake Lodge. Strayed’s heart sunk. Packer Lake Lodge was only a day’s walk out of Sierra City, so she must not have made it as far as she had thought in the snow. She agreed the ride, and as she looked out the window she thought of the fox and of the mother who would never return to her.
Chapter 10: Range of Light
At Packer Lake Lodge Strayed asked around about Greg, and discovered that someone had seen a man who met his description passing through. With only 60 cents left, Strayed could not afford any of the food at the Lodge restaurant. She met a woman named Christine who was staying in a cabin with her husband and two teenage daughters. Christine offered to take Strayed back to the cabin and let her shower. Christine’s husband Jeff gave her food, and Strayed traded her book of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories for a book called The Novel by James Michener. A college professor had told her that Michener was not a “real” writer, but Strayed’s mother had loved him and so the book was particularly significant to her.
After lunch, Christine drove Strayed to the ranger station in Quincy, where a pair of female college students agreed to give her a ride back to the trail. They asked her what her parents though of her hiking alone. Strayed responded that her father wasn’t in her life and her mother was dead. She felt a little guilty for not mentioning her stepfather Eddie, but realized that he had become like someone she used to know rather than the parental figure he had been growing up. Eddie was the first man in her life who had really cared about Strayed and her siblings, loving them and playing with them. But after her mother’s death, Eddie had pulled away, acting more like a friend than a father. A year after Strayed’s mother’s death, Eddie had already remarried and her family as she knew it before her mother died no longer existed.
The college girls dropped Strayed off at a place called Whitehorse Campground, saying that the PCT trail was just beyond it. However, it was already dark, and the trail was two miles away. Strayed decided to stay at the campground, but set up her tent on the outskirts because she didn’t have the money to pay to camp. The couple that owned the campsite found her, however, and kicked her out. They were the first people Strayed had met on the trail who were unkind. Scared to walk in the dark but having no other option, Strayed walked down the path in the direction of the PCT and camped for the night.
Unable to sleep, Strayed examined her tattoo. It was a matching tattoo she had gotten with Paul in honor of their divorce, to symbolize they still had a strong connection between them. The tattoo was a horse and also represented Lady, one of her mother’s two horses. Three years after her mother died, Strayed had visited Eddie at their house and was shocked at how weak and old Lady had become. She and Eddie agreed to put her down, and Eddie promised he would shoot her before Strayed came to the cabin with Paul for Christmas. However, when she and Paul arrived, Lady was still alive. She and Paul realized they would have to put her down themselves. Strayed called her brother Leif to help shoot the horse. Leif shot Lady right between the eyes, but she did not die instantly as they thought she would. Instead, Leif had to shoot her several times and Strayed became hysterical watching the horse suffer.
On the trail, Strayed finally managed to get to sleep. When she woke, she decided the best plan was to walk on a highway that ran parallel to the PCT but on lower ground. That way, she could avoid any more snow on the trail. On the road Strayed was approached by a car of three men and two young boys. They had no room for her to hitchhike, but told her to meet up with them at Three Lakes, where they were having Hawaiian Screwdrivers. That night Strayed drank with the men and later shared a joint with one of them, a Latino man named Paco. Paco gave her a Bob Marley shirt. He claimed the shirt was sacred and would help her walk with the spirit of animals.
The next morning Strayed received her next resupply box at Belden Town and also met two women—Trina and Stacy. They were the first female hikers Strayed had met on the trail. There was also a boy named Brent at the campsite, who confirmed Greg’s opinion that her boots were too small to be functional. All the hikers went to dinner together, and a bartender hit on Strayed, offering her a drink on the house. Although flattered, she chose to instead spend the night writing a letter to Joe and wishing on stars with Brent.
Part Four: Wild
Chapter 11: The Lou Out of Lou
Strayed spent some time hiking with Stacy and Trina on the alternate route, but then they went ahead in a car that only had room for two. As Strayed walked alone, another car pulled up. A man who introduced himself as Jimmy Carter, no relation, informed her that he was a reporter for a publication called the Hobo Times, and that his job was to interview people living the “hobo life.” Amused, Strayed tried to convince Jimmy Carter that she was not a hobo, but rather a hiker traveling the PCT. But given her appearance and the fact that she was walking alone along a highway, he was unconvinced. He interviewed Strayed and in exchange handed her a can of Budweiser and a plastic bag with some food. He also told Strayed that he hoped she had a gun with her, as she was entering Bigfoot territory, where the most Bigfoot sightings in the world were reported.
Strayed eventually caught a ride with a woman named Lou, her brother Spider, her fiancé Dave, and their dog Stevie Ray. She asked about a photo of a boy hanging from the rearview mirror, but immediately regretted it when Lou said that the boy was her son, Luke, and that he had been killed when his bike was hit by a truck 5 years earlier. He was only eight, and had not passed away until a full week after the accident. When Lou dropped Strayed off, she apologized for bringing up Lou’s son. Lou explained that after Luke died, she had lost part of herself forever. His death had taken the Lou out of Lou. Strayed said she understood what that felt like, and Lou said she had the feeling Strayed might.
They parted ways and Strayed reunited with Stacy and Trina. Together they hitched a ride to a village called Old Station and Strayed read in her guidebook about the next leg of the journey, a part of the Modoc Plateau called Hat Creek Rim. It was another dry section of the trail with few water sources, but the guidebook said there was a water tank 15 miles in that usually, but not always, was installed.
Strayed had abandoned her dromedary bag back in Kennedy Meadows, thinking she wouldn’t need it anymore and not wanting to deal with the extra water weight. Two recent hikers had written in the trail register that the tank was running so Strayed decided she would be fine. The next morning she read more of The Novel and decided to call Paul from a payphone. They talked for nearly an hour and he felt less like her ex-husband than her best friend. As she hung up, she realized she missed Paul and her old life. But she also didn’t want to go back to it. By this time, Strayed had been on the PCT for a little over a month, and she realized that she was incredibly alone, and that that was okay.
Chapter 12: This Far
The next morning Strayed woke at dawn and resumed hiking. She realized that her body had become accustomed to hiking, as Greg had promised it would, and that her muscles were stronger than ever before. Her feet, however, were still blistered and in terrible shape due to her too-small boots. As she hiked, Strayed realized that she had come to appreciate the distance of a mile, and to be humbled each time she walked one. It was a hot day and she couldn’t seem to relax. After hiking all day she was down to her last water, but decided not drink the last two ounces until the water tank was in sight.
When Strayed reached the tank, she drank the rest of her water, only to discover that the tank was disconnected. She realized she was incredibly dehydrated and that the nearest “reliable” water source was another 15 miles away. There was another water source only five miles up the trail at a reservoir. But the guidebook described the water as “questionable at best,” and the reservoir could be dried up in this heat for all Strayed knew. Furious with herself with being so naïve, and realizing that being without water was more dangerous even than the charging bull or the snow, she continued walking.
When she reached the reservoir, Strayed pumped the dirty, “questionable” water into her purifier and added iodine pills for good measure. She drank 32 ounces of the liquid and too exhausted to even set up her camp, fell asleep on the tarp. She woke up several hours later to hundreds of small black frogs jumping on her body. In a panic, she brushed them all off and set up her tent for the rest of the night.
The next day was even hotter, so Strayed took a detour off the trail toward a town called Cassel, where she reached a general store. She wanted to buy a Snapple Lemonade, which had become her drink of choice on the trip, but with only 76 cents could not afford it. The woman behind the counter let Strayed buy the drink anyway with what she had and informed her that there was a campsite nearby where PCT hikers could stay for free. At the campsite Strayed met another hiker named Rex, who encouraged her to call the REI customer service line about her boots, because they had a satisfaction guarantee. Strayed called and the woman on the phone promised to overnight-ship new boots, one size bigger, free of charge. Strayed also reunited with Stacy and Trina, and the three of them ate dinner with Rex.
The next day, four more PCT hikers joined the campsite—two couples around Strayed’s age—Sam and Helen from Maine and John and Sarah from Alberta. Surrounded by the tourists in the town of Burney Falls, Strayed felt for the first time like an experienced hiker, an Amazonian Queen. But her spirits quickly fell when she discovered that not only had her boots not arrived, there had been some confusion in the warehouse and they hadn’t even been shipped yet. Frustrated, she told the man on the REI customer service line to send the boots to a town called Castle Crags, 83 miles north.
As she stared at her painful, too-small boots, Strayed thought back to an astrologer who had read her natal chart when she was 23. Although Strayed didn’t put much faith in psychics, the astrologer had said such true things, especially about Strayed’s father, that she found herself believing regardless. The woman told her that to heal the wounds her father had left behind, Strayed would someday have to get on a horse and ride into battle like a warrior. Maybe this moment was the one the astrologer had referred to. Strayed put on her flimsy sandals and began the 83-mile walk to Castle Crags.
Chapter 13: The Accumulation of Trees
As she walked into her sixth week on the trail, Strayed thought about the history of the trail, which had first been imagined by a woman in 1926. Strayed realized that the real thing that compelled hikers on the trail to keep going was not philosophy or backpacking fads, or even the satisfaction of getting from point A to point B. Rather, it was the intoxicating feeling of being in the wild, which felt powerful and fundamental. The next day the unfortunate boot incident referenced in the prologue occurred. Strayed’s bag Monster toppled over her boots, knocking the left one to an irretrievable spot in the trees. Feeling like nature was playing some sort of joke on her, she threw the other boot into the trees as well, since it was useless without its companion. She strapped her flimsy sandals to her already injured feet with duct tape, comforted that at least there was a new pair of boots waiting for her at her next stop.
By evening the landscape had changed; the woods had given way to rubble and the trees had been logged and cleared. The site of the empty landscape unsettled Strayed, and she felt lonely in a way she normally didn’t on the trail. She wanted someone to talk to, and she realized that she didn’t want just anyone to talk to—she wanted Leif or Karen or Eddie. She longed for her family and lamented how distant they had become.
The week before she had left for the PCT, Strayed had gone up to the northern property to say goodbye to Eddie and visit her mother’s grave one last time. It was Memorial Day weekend, and Eddie and his new wife were throwing a party. Leif was up there too, and he informed Strayed he was tripping on ‘shrooms. He led Strayed to the garage, where she saw that the party guests were all carving their names into a table that had belonged to her mother. Furious at Eddie for betraying the table and her mother’s memory this way, she went out back to the gazebo with Leif. They were close to their mother’s grave, and Strayed felt her presence as they swung in a hammock. They walked to a deserted neighbor’s house and wandered inside. Strayed suggested they could carve their names somewhere, but Leif said that neither of them would, because of the way their mother had raised them.
Amid the barren landscape and crisscrossed roads, Strayed lost site of the PCT trail but wasn’t terribly alarmed. At lunch she took off her sweaty Bob Marley shirt to let it dry. By early evening was even more lost but still not afraid, knowing she had a good supply of food left and that eventually she’d find civilization again. In the morning, Strayed realized she had left her Bob Marley shirt the previous day, and was upset to have lost her “sacred” clothing. She reinforced her duct-taped booties and kept walking until she caught up with what she assumed to be Highway 89. Strayed managed to hitchhike the rest of the way to Castle Crags, where she received not only her new boots and a resupply box, but also nine letters from friends and family including Paul, Joe, and her sister Karen. She also came across Rex, Stacy, and the couple Sarah and John. They drank wine together and Strayed got sick from all the alcohol. The next day, she continued on in the direction of Oregon, determined not to let her hangover get in the way.
Chapter 14: Wild
Soon after leaving Castle Crags, Strayed realized her new boots would not magically cure all her blisters and foot troubles. She kept walking, but felt angry, bitter, sick, and overheated. She kept having recurring nightmares in which Bigfoot kidnapped her and brought her to an entire village filled with other Bigfoots. In the dreams, she would ask Bigfoot how he had hid from humans for so long, only to realize that he was not Bigfoot at all but instead a masked man in an animal suit. The dreams seemed to Strayed to be a foreboding sign, but she didn’t know of what.
On the trail she caught up with Stacy and Rex. Rex mentioned that he had heard that something called the Rainbow Gathering was happening nearby. Strayed had been to Rainbow Gatherings in the past—they were celebrations in national forests run by a loose tribe of hippies and free thinkers. The three went off a side road in search of the gathering, but couldn’t find it. A pickup truck of hippies drove by, also looking for the Gathering.
That night, Strayed, Stacy and Rex met up with the two couples they had met earlier on the trail, and they all camped together. Sam joked that Strayed’s trail name should be Hapless Hiker because of all the troubles she’d been through. It seemed like an appropriate name, but Strayed was slightly hurt, wanting to be seen as an Amazonian Queen instead. She had another Bigfoot dream that night which put her on edge, and the next day while hiking heard a big crash. It was only another bear, so she continued on, although she still felt unsettled. She sang songs to keep bears and Bigfoot away, and came across another patch of snow. After crossing with her ski pole, she felt stupid and vulnerable and lonely. She realized that everyone she had seen on the trail lately was traveling in pairs.
A few hours later, Strayed came across a llama, which she soon found out belonged to an old woman named Vera. Vera was hiking with a 5-year-old boy named Kyle, their llama Shooting Star, and their dog Miriam. Vera confided to Strayed that Kyle and his mother had been living on the streets in Portland, and that she was watching Kyle temporarily until his mother got her life together. Kyle yelled at Vera not to tell strangers about his problems, but calmed down when Strayed admitted that she had problems too, such as not really having a dad growing up. Kyle said he didn’t really have a dad either and they parted ways on the trail.
Later, Strayed came across a picnic bench where the couples had been, and found a fresh peach that Sam and Helen had left for her with a note. She was thrilled with the gift, but realized that she might never cross paths with them again and be able to thank them. She hiked alone for a few days, reading James Joyce’s Dubliners and wondering what kind of “horrible situation” Kyle’s mother was in. Her thoughts kept looping back to her own father, who had neglected to father her. She cried for the first time since starting the trail, and her tears were neither happy nor sad. She was crying because she was so full of the experience of the last 50 days, and all the days that had come before that as well.
Part Five: Box of Rain
Chapter 15: Box of Rain
On her second-to-last day in California, Strayed woke in the dark to rain against her tent. It had been hot and dry all summer, but the weather had changed suddenly and it was now a chilly 37 degrees. As she hiked later in the day, she came across Stacy, who was walking southbound. Rex had left the trail that day to return to his real life, and Stacy had decided to bus to Ashland, Oregon instead, where she would wait for her friend Dee. She told Strayed to meet up with her at the hostel in Ashland once she got there.
The next morning, Strayed woke earlier than usual, excited to be almost at the California-Oregon border. Less than a mile from the border she lost her POW bracelet, but there was nothing to do but move forward. At the border, Strayed wrote, “I made it!” in the trail register and then camped under a full moon. She tried to read J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, but couldn’t concentrate because she was too excited about Ashland. Ashland was going to be her ending point originally before she decided to bypass the snow, and the resupply package she had waiting there contained traveler’s checks and a “real world” outfit to wear. She was going to have a “real world” weekend, in clothes and an atmosphere away from the trail.
The next day, Strayed hitched a ride to Ashland, where she learned that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead had passed away. Ashland was full of radical youth and hippies, all of which seemed to be mourning Jerry Garcia’s death. Strayed saw one of the guys who had been in the truck looking for the Rainbow Gathering, but he didn’t seem to recognize her. She went to the post office to get her package, but the employee told her it wasn’t there. Panicked, Strayed realized she had only $2.29 left. There was a letter from her friend Laura in Minneapolis with a homemade necklace that said “Strayed” but the y looked like a v, so it looked like “Starved” at first sight. Strayed put it on and walked to the Ashland co-op, where she ran across another of the men who had been in the Rainbow Gathering Truck. He didn’t remember her either.
Inside the co-op, Strayed met a Swiss woman named Susanna who told her that in Switzerland, what Strayed was doing was called the pilgrim way. Susanna convinced Strayed to let her massage Strayed’s feet, because it was the Swiss Way and the spirits told her to do it. After several hours of wandering, Strayed returned to the post office and found out her package had been there all along. She found Stacy and her friend Dee at the hostel, and after dinner went to a Jerry Garcia memorial celebration at a club nearby. There, she met a handsome man wearing a Wilco shirt named Jonathan. He worked at the club, but invited her to come by the next night when he would be off early.
Strayed went to the club the next day, but she decided ahead of time that whatever happened with Jonathan, she would keep her pants on. She didn’t want him to see the rough calloused patches on her hips, where her pack had dug into her. While waiting for Jonathan to finish work, Strayed went outside the club and met an older man named Clyde who was living out of his truck. He gave her some chamomile tea and an opium root to chew on. When Jonathan finally met up with her, they went back to the organic farm where he lived. Neither had a condom, so they did other sexual things and spent the night. The next day, Strayed went to the beach with Jonathan and sex with him there against a rock.
Chapter 16: Mazama
Strayed returned to the trail with a new guidebook: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 2: Oregon and Washington. As she hiked, she thought about Crater Lake, which lay ahead on the PCT. It was originally a volcano called Mount Mazama, which had erupted 7,700 years ago. The lake that formed after was the deepest in the United States. A few days out of Ashland, Strayed reached a busier part of the trail. There were more short-term and weekend hikers there.
On August 18th, Strayed realized it was her mother’s birthday. She would have been 50. Over the past five years, Strayed had mostly been sad on her mother’s birthday, but this year she was angry instead. Dying at 45 was just one of many things her mother had done wrong in her life, and as Strayed walked, she recounted them. Her mother’s shortcomings included such faults as smoking marijuana in front of her children, telling them it was okay to call her by her first name, leaving the children alone too much while she worked, and being optimistic to an annoying degree. Strayed felt that her mother had failed her profoundly, and thought the heck with her, as she hiked. She wailed over the injustice of her mother’s death, but by the time Strayed began walking again, she had already forgiven her. She knew that her mother had given her children everything, and had loved them more than anyone.
When her mother nearing death, Strayed had worked up the nerve to ask what she wanted done with her body after she passed. Her mother said she didn’t care, but Strayed was unrelenting. How could she not care? Finally, her mother had said that she wanted all organs possible donated, and the rest to be cremated. The family had scattered her ashes on her birthday, in the garden behind their house in the Minnesota woods. Strayed had kept a few of the largest chunks of the ashes—bits of charred bones—and swallowed them. That way, her mother would always be with her.
When Strayed reached Crater Lake, all she could think was that it was once a place of lava and destruction. But somehow a lake had formed out of the waste, proving that even an empty bowl could change into something beautiful after being given time to heal.
Chapter 17: Into a Primal Gear
By the time Strayed reached Oregon, she knew she was in the home stretch. But she still had 334 miles to go before she reached her ending point at the Bridge of Gods. Oregon was at times hot but more often cold and rainy. Walking was sometimes pleasant, but other times unbearable. By the time she reached Shelter Cove Resort, Strayed was again low on money but comforted by the fact that she would have $20 waiting in her resupply box. However, when Strayed opened the box, the money was not inside.
Strayed met three hikers named Rick, Josh, and Richie. They were a few years younger and also from Minnesota. They had been nicknamed the Three Young Bucks by hikers in southern California, and the name had stuck. Strayed walked with them a day on the trail, but then they separated. She hiked several days by herself, stopping one at a restaurant on an adjacent trail, only to discover she didn’t have enough money for tip. Embarrassed, Strayed left a package of stamps instead.
Strayed missed a fork in the trail at one point and discovered that she was on a parallel route called the Oregon Skyline Trail. She set up camp beside a pond, and was soon joined by two bow hunters in their mid-thirties desperate for water. She lent the men her water filter, but the sandy-haired man was careless and clogged it. Strayed gave them some iodine pills, realizing that she herself would have to depend on the pills until her purifier was fixed. The men were rude and invasive, making comments about Strayed’s figure and the fact that she was traveling alone. She got a bad feeling about them, but managed to excuse herself, saying she was traveling several more miles that day.
The men left, and Strayed remained at her original campsite. However, the sandy-haired man returned alone shortly after, confirming Strayed’s instinct about him had been correct. He mentioned that he had witnessed her changing and fearful, Strayed began to think about what she could use to defend herself if necessary. Just then, the sandy-haired man’s companion returned, asking where he had gone. After they left again, Strayed packed up her stuff and ran as fast as she could down the trail.
Chapter 18: Queen of the PCT
It rained continuously the next few days, until Strayed reached a ranger station at Olallie Lake. Still shaken by her experience with the men in the woods, she was relieved to arrive. The ranger knew her name already, having been told by some of Strayed’s hiker friends that she would be passing through. In addition to her resupply box, Strayed received three letters, including one from Ed—the trail angel from Kennedy Meadows. She also found that her resupply box contained two envelopes of 20 dollars instead of one. She ate dinner with the rangers, and also ran into the Three Young Bucks again.
The ranger who had given Strayed her letters invited her to his cabin for drinks and she accepted only on the condition that her friends join as well. The ranger, named Guy, was old and a bit weird, but Strayed wanted to be warm and out of the rain so she put up with his advances. She hung out with Rick, Richie, and Josh, discovering that she was very attracted to Rick even though she thought he was too young for her. The next day, the Three Young Bucks told Strayed that they had come up with a trail name for her: The Queen of the PCT. This was because people always wanted to give her things and did her favors. Just after they told her this, an old man at the register told Strayed she could stay in one of the cabins for next to nothing. She realized the Three Young Bucks were right, and that most people had greeted her with unusual kindness on the trail.
Strayed settled in the cabin with The Three Young Bucks. When she went outside to go back to the store, she was surprised to see Lisa, her friend from Portland, standing outside. Lisa explained that she had come by to see if Strayed was there. Strayed was thrilled to see her, but also felt strange about her two worlds—the life she lived off the trail, and the life she lived on it—were coinciding. She spent the night on her futon in the back of Lisa’s truck, wedged up against Rick, Richie, and Josh.
Chapter 19: The Dream of a Common Language
The next morning, Strayed ran into Doug and Tom, whom she hadn’t seen since they had parted ways when Strayed bypassed the snow. Doug explained that they had hiked a while in the snow, but eventually bypassed themselves when the hike became too treacherous. They camped together that night and caught up on all the experiences they had had since they last saw each other. When Doug went to sleep, Strayed began to burn The Ten Thousand Things, the last book she had read on the trail. It was the same book she had read to her mother in the weeks before her death. Sitting around the fire inevitably made Strayed think of Eddie.
It was Eddie who had taught her how to make a fire, and who had taken her camping for the first time. She realized that without Eddie’s influence, she never would have ended up on the PCT. Although he had ultimately drifted from her, Eddie had loved her well when it mattered the most. Strayed tried to burn her last book, The Dream of a Common Language, but found herself unable to do it. Instead, she hugged the book to her chest.
For the next few days, Strayed walked with Doug and Tom, and a pair of women they ran into. They days were filled with laughter and good company, and it felt to Strayed like a summer camp. But eventually, she parted ways with the rest, wanting to hike the rest of the journey alone. She reached Mount Hood, impressed by how different it looked up close than it did from afar. As she stared at the river, she thought of her mother on the other side of it and felt a huge release, as if she was finally letting her go. At last she reached the Bridge of Gods, which spanned the Columbia River, connecting Oregon and Washington. Strayed touched the bridge, awed and humbled that she had at last made it and that her trip was at its end.
Strayed ordered ice cream by the bridge, spending the last of her money. She had only twenty cents left in the world, but she accepted this with contentment. A man her age approached her and began talking to her about her trip. Impressed, he gave her a business card and told her to get in touch with him when she reached Portland so they could talk more. The man ended up becoming her husband, and over a decade later they would return to that very ice cream place with their two children. The trail had taught Strayed how life, with all its mysteries and hardships, was her own to claim. And it was as wild as the trail she had walked.