Last Sunday, Katie and I were bumming up and down Main St. in Pleasanton when she found a little book shop nestled in an old, iconic house. Town Center Books, I discovered the name when I went to pay. Pretty cool little niche place. Our Barnes & Noble membership didn’t work there and there was no Starbucks in the corner, so I only loved it all-the-more.
I love local places. I wish Blackbird Café would franchise out here.
While there, we were talking with the attending staff member on new reads to try. We were going through ideas. The member had great ideas from his college English class and his current favs. At his suggestion, I picked up Beatlebone by Kevin Barry because I wanted something with hair-blown-back prose and All Our Wrong Days by Elan Mastai because I wanted something local – the thought-provoking sci-fi was an added bonus. Katie picked up classics: The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Homer’s The Odyssey.
By the way:
Had we known we were heading back to Indiana this week, we would have waited and picked up Katie’s choices from my mother’s basement.
Then we got to the fact the last book I finished was Wild by Cheryl Strayed.
I was initially looking at picking up Wintering by Peter Geye, but I told him I thought, at that time, I had saturated my need to read books that take place in the out in the back woods, in the wild, or along a trail. After having recently read, Into the Wild and Wild, having the 3-volume set of the Pacific Crest Trail sitting atop my stack-to-read, and continually reading blogs such as Halfway Anywhere, I just needed something with prose. Thus, Beatlebone.
Yeah. I know. I didn’t realize Beatlebone was a novel about John Lennon’s need to find an island he bought in the woods of North English-ish so he could let out a primal scream. More back woods. But, in my defense, I’m nearly halfway through reading Beatlebone and he hasn’t yet found his island. I’m sort of hoping he doesn’t.
The staff member told me Wild was on his list to read. He asked if I thought it was worth it.
“Fuck Wild.” I replied.
He laughed, but seemed surprised by my reaction. I explained that there was much I admired in the book, but I didn’t like where she thought equilibrium was. I thought it was horseshit.
It goes like this…
I admired Cheryl Strayed’s journey along the Pacific Crest Trail.
I went on to tell him my problem wasn’t that Cheryl barely walked half the trail and took the bus to skip most the snow. I wasn’t being a stickler because she didn’t start in Campo, CA and ended at the Canada line at Manning Park, British Columbia. Most don’t try the whole trail and very few of those who try it succeed.
According to the book (not the movie) Wild, Cheryl Strayed hiked about a thousand miles with a backpack nearly as big as her and without really any training or conditioning. And coming off heroin. And on heroin.
I give props for that.
Except for the fucking heroin. That heroin was involved will come into play shortly.
And she extended her journey because of the snow just to get her 1,000 miles. That’s cool.
By personal comparison…
Shit, I’ve only walked 75 feet of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was at Donner Pass. We saw the west I-80W sign while coming back from Incline Village, NV. But, I did it in the snow, in November, in Sperry flip flops, so I, too, am a badass. We just won’t mention that within 80 minutes I was back to 75-degree weather.
I admire that she did it with less supplies and support than most.
She did it on a shoestring budget. $20 or so at a time.
For those that don’t know, most every hiker buys supplies along the trail. They also have to load up on water, often – especially for the desert portions. They’ll pack and ship supply boxes to themselves in advance to little post offices and supply outlets along trail before they step foot on the trail. They don’t kill for their supper and eat off the trail. At least, from what I’ve read. Not much Davy Crockett-ing going on. Even with all this, without the help of trail angels and friendly strangers who still pick up hitchhikers like it’s the 1940s, even fewer probably achieve their goals.
This budgetary bootstrapping probably factored in because she didn’t get to celebrate as much with her trail friends who binged out at restaurants discovered near their re-supply points. Sometimes she’d be the one to go without the hotel or hostel where she could shower and get out of the cold. The fact she used so little money, and only had so little money to use, probably aided her because she had to stay strict and disciplined with herself. Giving what she was doing before the trail, this fact alone probably saved her life, and her soul…I’m guessing.
I admired why she took the hike.
She fell apart after her mother died. She dynamited what was left. Then she tried to throw herself out with the morning trash.
Hell, she probably took the trail hoping she wouldn’t come back. It doesn’t say so in the book, but for as cathartic as she was with everything else, it’d make sense. I felt that. But in the end, by taking perhaps the most difficult designated trail in the US as underprepared as she was, she threw herself into the deep end of the pool to teach her how to swim. And she punctured the holes in her water wings before she jumped.
She was going to be a phoenix, or she was going to spread her ashes and let nature decide what it needed.
Reckless, but so shit goes.
Once again, that was my interpretation. I don’t recall her saying that. There were times she talked about getting off the trail, but not when she started. She took one more hit of heroin before she started out on the trail so if shit would have fallen apart, well, you probably wouldn’t have read about it.
The positive people in her life seemed like great people.
Her mother and siblings and step-father and husband/ex-husband Paul seemed beyond worthwhile. Supportive, challenging, tempered.
Paul will probably be given sainthood when his time here is done after what he went through and how steadfast he stayed in his support. His breed of manhood is only becoming rarer.
And the horse. Poor horse.
I think I didn’t agree with the resolution of her relationships with the negative elements in her life: Her Joe and her heroin. Fuck that. I hated it.
” What if heroin taught me something?” – Cheryl Strayed.
I’ve quoted many a good thing on social media when I read her book. I liked quite a bit of it, but when she got to the Bridge of the Gods, her end point, and she’s eating ice cream and still referenced Joe’s name and she still referenced not thinking about heroin, that either element still entered her mind as old friends, I wanted to throw the book off the wall. If I could have thrown the book of the wall while still reading it, I would have. And no, no other books were thrown in Wild’s honor.
You don’t learn jack shit from heroin. You don’t learn “because of” them or “learn what not to do.” There’s no clever phrasing or any way to spin anything positive from heroin. You learn things in spite of heroin, if you’re lucky. If you’re really, really lucky.
It’s like thanking the abuser for teaching you how to be kind to others or thanking the rapist for showing you positions you never before knew. It’s a variation of the Stockholm syndrome.
She didn’t cut heroin out of her life. She didn’t cut Joe out of her life. He kept sending letters while she hiked. And she kept reading them.
Wait. Who’s Joe? He wasn’t in the movie version of “Wild”.
Joe was the co-dependent heroin fuckbuddy Cheryl fell into while her and Paul were separated. He got her started on heroin. He also is the one presumably who knocked her up. She had an abortion (very) shortly before starting the hike.
See. The book is always better than the movie.
It wasn’t a Hollywood ending in the book. That’s what made it so worth reading.
I know. I know.
“You said, ‘Fuck Wild.‘ What the Hell, dude?”
Oh, yeah, Fuck Wild. Read it 42 times, but still, don’t be afraid to get mad if you don’t feel like she learned the most valuable lesson and she’s setting herself up for more backsliding with her addictions: Her Joe and her heroin.
To be honest, I had to work it out with myself. I had to take two weeks after finishing Wild to keep thinking about why I got so mad that she reached the end and still hadn’t warded off Joe, confronted heroin’s impact head on, and got her rocks off being noticed by the guy in the BMW while she’s eating ice cream. She walked 1,000 miles and was still an addict to Joe, to heroin, to sex…but I guess we all are addicted to something.
I suppose that was the point. The PCT wasn’t supposed to be a life-changing adventure.
It might change your life, but it’s not supposed to change you. There were parts of her that were rejuvenated, revitalized, and invigorated about the next chapter in her life. Then there were parts of her that was still holding on the strength she found from surviving the deep dives down rabbit holes, bits of insanity most wouldn’t dare test. She could still go there to hide and no one would dare chase her – except maybe Paul, still.
Those bits of insanity that keep us all sane.
And I think her benders and partial epiphanies hit too close to me. I think it’s because I’ve been Paul before.
Not death to us part attached, just a come, come & get-this-close-with-me with an old friend from a long time gone. She was much like Cheryl: as brilliant as reckless, and I met her coming out, and in & out of benders.
The running joke was that she was more of a man than was I. She was probably right.
We got this…close. But I couldn’t get any closer. I could share a bed but not a moment in it with her. It was me.
My fear with her was the fear I had with Cheryl at the end of Wild. I was afraid she had come so far but never saw the devil within her vices.
She came and went 4 times and it was because each time, in the back of my head, I was waiting to see if the next bender was only an argument away.
And we’re still in touch, so much as we need something or need help. And that’s okay. She has a family. I have a family. And I couldn’t be happier for how far she’s come.
Control over her vices is still one of my prayers.
That’s why I wanted to throw the book off the wall. That’s why I said, and say, “Fuck Wild.” I’ve seen similar before.
I should probably go back to Town Center Books and clarify that with the attending staff worker.
I admit, I’m addicted. I want to see what she wrote next. I want to see if I stay Paul, and if I don’t, who I turn into.
Mostly, I’m looking forward to seeing just how far Cheryl strays.
Now, John, where the fuck did you put that island?