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A Sunday Chat with Cheryl Strayed, the author of ‘Wild’

The Big Read wraps up during National Library Week

It’s National Library Week and also the wrap-up for this year’s Big Read sponsored by the Dayton Metro Library. The community-wide project got folks throughout the Miami Valley reading and discussing Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”

The memoir chronicles Strayed’s 1,000-mile hike from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State.

“This book was all about the author’s arduous, life-changing hike on the Pacific Crest Trail,” says Jean Gaffney, the library’s manager of acquisition and collection development. “It was about inner strength as well as physical endurance, making connections between people and experiencing the transformative power of nature.”

Gaffney says one of the most fun parts of the Big Read this year was been partnering with local parks staff and involving outdoors enthusiasts with the programs and book discussions.

“One reason we were able to hold more book discussions than ever is because Five Rivers Metro Parks offered space in their buildings throughout the county as well as staff who could speak from experience about trail hiking,” she says.

Gaffney says the number of people coming to Big Read events has ranged from 10 people at some smaller libraries to more than 150 people at the opening events at the Main Library and Cox Arboretum where Brent and Amy Anslinger spoke about their honeymoon hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.

“We held over 40 scheduled book discussions and events but we know there are others discussion groups — including independent book clubs — that also feature the Big Read title at their meetings,” Gaffney adds. “Some people came to talk about the trail adventure and others prefer to focus on the many issues in the author’s life that brought her to the trail.”

Gaffney says librarians have been creative with programming related to “Wild.” They served trail mix as snacks, brought trail equipment for display, loaded a backpack with books so that participants could feel the weight that Cheryl experienced carrying her pack, “Monster.”

Stayed’s book is currently being made into a motion picture due to be released in the fall. Reese Witherspoon will portray Strayed.

We asked Strayed about her life before and after her challenging journey:

Q. How did your PCT journey impact your life? In what ways were you “lost” before the trip and in what ways were you “found” after it?

A. I detail the ways I was “lost” in my book “Wild.” My mother had died young — at the age of 45 — and I didn’t know how I could live without her, my family disintegrated soon after my mom died, and in my grief I did self-destructive things that only increased my sense of despair. Hiking the PCT helped me find my center again. It put me in touch with my strength. I think the journey impacted my life in so many positive ways I can’t even name them all. It taught me how to keep moving forward even when it hurts to do so.

Q. Are you still in contact with any of the people you met on the PCT?

A. Yes.

Q. Would you still recommend that a woman hike alone on the PCT? Would you consider hiking the PCT again? Or have you done other physically challenging things?

A. I would absolutely recommend hiking the PCT or any long trail. It’s an experience like no other, one of the best things I’ve ever done. I still love to backpack and it’s still physically challenging. I’ve also given birth to two children without any drugs, outside of a hospital. That was the most physically challenging experience of all!

Q. What was the most challenging aspect of the trip for you?

A. It was hard work and I was often in pain. Sometimes it was monotonous. But even when it was difficult, there was something really so fun about it. I had a tremendous sense of mission. Each day was an achievement, even if it felt like it had been a disaster.

Q. How is your family reacting to the popularity of Wild?

A. My husband and our two children are my biggest supporters and fans. My kids especially get a kick out of it when people walk up to me and say, “Excuse me, are you the author of WILD?”

Q. The hike took place almost 20 years ago. How would it be different today?

A. When I hiked the PCT in the summer of 1995 hardly anyone was using the Internet. There were no cell phones. When you wanted to get in touch with someone you wrote them a letter or called them on an old fashioned phone. If you wanted music, you’d have to carry a Walkman and bring along cassette tapes. It’s amazing to me how quickly our technology has advance and how much this has affected the experience we have in the wild. You could go on-line and find hundreds of trail journals now. I’ve tweeted from the PCT (I think I said something brilliant like, “I’m tweeting from the PCT!”).

I’m as addicted to my iPhone as the rest of us, but I do think we’ve lost something by having so much at our fingertips. Solitude—I mean real, profound, absolute solitude — was a hugely important part of my experience. I don’t think I could have that if I were 26 and hiking the trail now.

There’s also so much more awareness of the trail, so many more people along the way willing to be “trail angels” (assisting hikers). There was a far greater sense of being on my own than you have out there now. This doesn’t mean that it’s entirely different. You still have to hike the miles, even if you have an iPad in your pack. The essential experience is the same.

Q. You write a lot about the books you carried and read on the trail. Why was reading so important to you?

A. Reading was so important to me because reading has always been important to me. Literature is my religion. Books took on even more importance on the trail because the people in them were my companions.

Q. What kind of involvement have you had with the making of the movie of “Wild”?

A. I was very involved. I was often on the set and spoke at length to people in just about every department — from the actors to the set designers to the props people and onward — about how to bring my life and book alive on the screen. I’m honored that so many talented people came together to make “Wild.” It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Q. Have you shared your love of the wilderness with your children?

A. I share my love of wild places with them. We often hike together, though not as often as I’d like these days. I’ve been very busy being the ambassador for “Wild” around the world and that has definitely cut into my hiking time.

Q. What influences did your mother have on you that you have passed along to your own children?

A. My mother loved me and my siblings with a wild abandon. We always knew that and felt that. We basked in the light of her big mama love and my kids get the same from me. They get to live in that light, as every child should.

Q. As a mom, would you be concerned if one of your own kids wanted to do the kind of trip you did? What advice would you give to parents whose kids want to tackle things that are quite challenging and potentially dangerous?

A. I would be thrilled if my kids wanted to go on a long hike. It’s so good for the mind, the body and the spirit. It teaches us things we can only learn through doing. Of course I would worry about them, but that’s not a reason to stop them. We all know that most of the best things are learned when we dare to go outside the comfort zone.

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