At its heart, Wild is a story of self-discovery. Strayed used the many lonely hours on the trail to reflect back on her life and the many steps that had brought her to that point. It was only by escaping into the wilderness, with nothing but her pack and her own mind and body to rely on, that Strayed was able to free herself from the troubles that had weighed her down. She learned that sometimes it takes a drastic experience to discover who you really are, where you’re headed, and what you need to leave behind.
Grief is the driving force behind Wild. The death of Strayed’s mother played a huge role in her life in the years that followed. She carried her grief around with her everywhere and was at times consumed by it. During her time on the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed learned to hold on to her love for her mother, but ultimately to let her go.
As its name implies Wild is very much about nature and the interaction between individual and environment. At one point in the memoir, Strayed says that the reason hikers continue on the Pacific Crest Trail has nothing to do with completing a journey or being part of a fad, and everything to do with the majesty of the wilderness. It was only in the wild, Strayed realized during her hike, that she could overcome her past and reach her own potential.
On the trail, there were several times when Strayed considered giving up, but found the strength to keep going. Even at low-points, when she was without shoes or water or company, Strayed continued hiking, knowing that there was a purpose in her actions. She learned the value of never giving up, and of fighting through to the end, no matter what.
On the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed learned the importance of choices, as well as how limiting they could sometimes be. Often her choices were limited to two simple options: move forward or move backward. Other times, it seemed like she had no choice at all. The Pacific Crest Trail taught Strayed that choices were something to be valued and respected, and that they were never to be taken lightly.
Love plays a prominent role in the memoir, especially when it comes to Strayed’s relationships with her mother, Paul, and her siblings. Despite the pain inherent in these relationships, Strayed never lost sight of the love beneath them all. At her darkest moments on the trail, she thought back to the people who meant the most to her. She drew strength from the love she had for them, as well as the love she knew they had for her, although they didn’t always show it. Despite sometimes being dysfunctional, Strayed’s family was sacred to her.
Although Strayed set out on her hike determined to live without fear, she found that there were certain moments where it was okay to be afraid. Fear, she learned, was not always a thing to be despised. It was bad if it weighed you down, but sometimes, Strayed discovered during her hike, fear was unavoidable. Acknowledging her fear meant acknowledging her humanity, and her connection to the other hikers sharing this experience with her.
As a female hiking alone and often surrounded only by men, Strayed became keenly aware of her femininity and both the power as well as the danger that comes with being a woman. A self-proclaimed feminist, she never let her gender inhibit her ability, and kept up with the men the whole way. Strayed received nicknames such as “Queen of the PCT” and “The Only Woman in the Woods,” all the while never losing track of who she was.
Many parts of Wild refer to Strayed’s sexuality: her experiences with men in the past, and her longing for sex along the trail. Through several crushes and sexual encounters, Strayed embraced the physical needs and yearnings of her body, although at times she questioned the motivation behind her actions. Ultimately, she came to understand this aspect of herself more wholly as an inherent part of her life.
Much of Wild references youth, and the mistakes that come along with it. Both Strayed and her mother married young and suffered because of it. Strayed got entangled with drugs, made impulsive and rash decisions, and often found herself lost and lonely. But she also embraced her youth and the freedom that came with it. Her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail was as much a testament to her youth and possibility as it was a chance for healing and forgiveness.