Local reading program decides to get a little ‘Wild’

This year’s Pierce County Reads book, Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild,’ tells a tough life story through some tough hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail

Staff writerMarch 2, 2014 

We’ve all made bad life choices — some of us more than others. But few of us have the courage to sort them out by hiking 1,100 miles all by ourselves along the Pacific Crest Trail, then telling all in a book.

For Cheryl Strayed, though, both the outer hike and its parallel inner journey found expression in “Wild,” a 2012 memoir that hit best seller lists, won multiple book awards, got her on “Oprah” and National Public Radio and is being made into a film directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Reese Witherspoon.

Coming from a place of parental death, divorce and hard drug use, the book’s astounding story and brutal honesty have resounded with thousands of readers — which is partly why it was chosen for this year’s Pierce County Reads program.

“‘Wild’ is about a woman who made some … let’s call them ‘interesting’ choices during a difficult time in her life and then worked hard to get herself back on track,” said Lisa Bitney, reading and materials director for the Pierce County Library.

“The selection panel felt this book would resonate with a lot of different people. We’ve all made mistakes and struggled at some point in our lives. To me, that’s the power of this book.”

It also has plenty of possibilities for community events, something else Bitney looks for in a Pierce County Reads book.

The 2-month program, which will culminate in a speaking and signing event with Strayed at Clover Park Technical College, includes workshops, discussions and lectures surrounding nature, writing, long-distance hiking and the Pacific Crest Trail itself.

There also are appearances from other authors, including wild food expert Langdon Cook, University of Puget Sound graduate and long-distance rower Jordan Hanssen, and backpacker and photographer Tami Asars, as well as The News Tribune’s outdoors writers Craig Hill and Jeffrey P. Mayor.

Events will take place in libraries throughout the system, as well as at REI, King’s Books and UPS.

In addition to being a grueling account of a long-distance hike in the days before the Internet made it a lot easier to prepare for one, “Wild” is about an inner journey from a place where life is falling apart to somewhere more secure and hopeful.

Strayed’s story begins with the event that pulled her life apart: the death of her 45-year-old mother from cancer when Strayed was 22. A single woman raising Strayed and her two siblings while supporting, struggling and endlessly loving, Strayed’s mother had been the anchor of her daughter’s life through tough times, college and an early marriage.

After her mother’s death, Strayed started disconnecting from her husband and family, sleeping around, using heroin and generally “detaching,” as she told a therapist.

Discovering a hiking trail that stretched along the spine of the West from Mexico to Canada, she decided to hike it by herself – despite a complete lack of experience, and in a pre-Internet 1995 when information about the trail was basically one book.

“Wild” then weaves between the hike, replete with scary anecdotes from rattlesnakes and bears to potential rapists, and Strayed’s backstory, from a violent, abandoning father through teen poverty and into her own psychology.

With the grip of a thriller and the profundity of a novel, “Wild” takes the reader through multiple metaphors, devastating honesty and sharp-edged sentences along a journey that finds gradual hope and peace only from a future Strayed, writing her story 27 years later.

There are many surprising facets of “Wild,” not the least of which is Strayed’s turnaround story. Another is her last name, chosen by her upon her divorce to symbolize her new, rootless existence and coming into its own as she loses herself on the trail.

Another striking facet is how impressive it is to hike from Mojave, Calif., to the Columbia River (albeit with some skips) with no preparation save a shopping trip to REI. Distracted by her own life, Strayed doesn’t read her guidebook until she’s hiking and ends up with too-small boots, not enough water and a pack that weighs almost as much as she does.

“It was pretty funny, especially when she lost her boot and couldn’t lift her pack,” said Elena Wimberger, a Tacoman who hiked the trail last year with her brother and boyfriend, and who read “Wild” on friends’ recommendations.

“But we met a lot of people on the trail who’d never hiked before. … It was pretty gutsy, pretty brave to do it on her own.”

Wimberger and her companions were experienced hikers who spent five months preparing for their trip, including reading numerous blogs, buying all the food ahead of time and packing 25 boxes of supplies her parents mailed to towns along the route.

Despite her naiveté, Strayed ends up dubbed “the Queen of the PCT” by the friends she makes along the way, respected for her tenacity, strength and make-do attitude — qualities, she realizes near the end, that come from her mother.

“It really changes your perspective on the world,” Wimberger said. “By the end of the trail (the inexperienced hikers) were really self-confident, experienced in the outdoors. You’re also able to be really present in the moment, to give all your attention to people with you.

“You think about the future, reflect on the past. For me, just after college, it was perfect timing.”

As Strayed herself puts it, what her journey most gave her was the ability to accept her own life — as she puts it, “like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred.”

Pierce County Reads 2014

Book: “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed.

Available: In hard copy, e-book and audio from Pierce County libraries.

Main event: Free author talk and signing, 7 p.m. April 25 at McGavick Conference Center, Clover Park Technical College, 4500 Steilacoom Blvd. SW, Lakewood.

Information: piercecountyreads.org.

Flash fiction (or not) writing contest

What: Write about travel, hiking, nature or a personal journey in 750 words or fewer.

When: Submit your story by April 2.

Requirements: Washington state residents 18 and older.

Enter: Send by email with personal details to info@piercecountyreads.org, hand in to any Pierce County library or mail it to 3005 112th St. E., Tacoma, WA 98445.

Free Program Events

March 12: 6 p.m. Birding Basics. University Place library, 3609 Market Place W. Suite 100, University Place. 253-548-3307.

March 13: 7 p.m. Hidden Treasures in Washington Museums. Key Center library, 8905 KPN, Lakebay. 253-272-8801.

March 13: 7 p.m. Backpacking Basics. REI, 3825 S. Steele St., Tacoma. 253-671-1938.

March 15: 1 p.m. Washington Wildlife. Orting library, 202 Washington Ave. S., Orting. 253-548-3312.

March 16: 2 p.m. Creating Backyard Habitats for Birds. Parkland/Spanaway library, 13718 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma. 253-548-3304.

March 20: 11 a.m. Book discussion. Key Center library, 8905 KPN, Lakebay. 253-548-3309

March 20: 7 p.m. Author Langdon Cook on wild foods. South Hill library, 15420 Meridian Ave. E., Puyallup. 253-548-3303.

March 22: 1 p.m. Wildflower and Waterfall Photography. Parkland/Spanaway library, 13718 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma. 253-548-3304.

March 22: 2 p.m. Birding Basics. Milton/Edgewood library, Surprise Lake Square, 900 Meridian Ave. E. Suite 29, Milton. 253-548-3325.

March 22: 2 p.m. Build a birdhouse. Key Center library, 8905 KPN, Lakebay. 253-548-3309

March 25: 6 p.m. Author Langdon Cook on wild foods. Gig Harbor library, 4424 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor. 253-548-3305.

March 26: 6:30 p.m. Photographing wildflowers and waterfalls. Steilacoom library, 2950 Steilacoom Blvd, Steilacoom. 253-548-3313

March 26: 6:30 p.m. Birding Basics. Eatonville library, 205 Center St. W., Eatonville. 253-548-3311.

March 25: 7 p.m. Hiking the Wonderland Trail. REI, 3825 S. Steele St., Tacoma. 253-671-1938.

March 25: 7 p.m. Wildflower and Waterfall Photography. Puyallup library, 324 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup. 253-841-5454.

March 26: 6 p.m. Night at the museum. Thompson Hall, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma.

March 26: 7 p.m. Author Langdon Cook on wild foods. Bonney Lake library, 18501 90th St. E, Bonney Lake. 253-548-3308.

March 27: 7 p.m. Photographing wildflowers and waterfalls. Lakewood library, 6300 Wildaire Rd., Lakewood. 253-548-3302

March 29: 1 p.m. Hiking Essentials. Buckley library, 123 S. River Ave., Buckley. 253-548-3310.

March 29: 2 p.m. Hiking with Children. Tillicum library, 14916 Washington Ave. SW, Lakewood. 253-548-3314.

March 29: 2 p.m. TNT Adventure Guys: Favorite Places with Craig Hill and Jeffrey P. Mayor. University Place library, 3609 Market Place W., Suite 100, University Place. 253-548-3307.

March 29: 2 p.m. Hiking 101. Graham library, 9202 224th St. E., Graham. 253-548-3322.

March 29: 2:30 p.m. Birding Basics. DuPont library, 1540 Wilmington Drive, DuPont. 253-548-3326.

March 31: 6 p.m. Author Langdon Cook on wild foods. Summit library, 5107 112th St. E., Tacoma. 253-548-3321.

April 1: 6 p.m. Book Art with Mitzi Lindgren. Gig Harbor library, 4424 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor. 253-548-3305.

April 1: 6:30 p.m. Author Langdon Cook on wild foods. DuPont library, 1540 Wilmington Drive, DuPont. 253-548-3326.

April 2: 6 p.m. Author Langdon Cook on wild foods. Parkland/Spanaway library, 13718 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma. 253-548-3304.

April 2: 6:30 p.m. Birding Basics. Sumner library, 1116 Fryar Ave., Sumner. 253-548-3306.

April 2: 6:30 p.m. Author Jordan Hanssen. Tahoma room, Commencement Hall, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma.

April 2: 7 p.m. Hiking 101. Lakewood library, 6300 Wildaire Rd., Lakewood. 253-548-3302

April 3: 7 p.m. Author Tami Asars. King's Books, 218 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma. 253-272-8801

April 5: 10 a.m. Write Your Memoir. Gig Harbor library, 4424 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor. 253-548-3305.

April 5: 1 p.m. Wildflower and waterfall photography. Fife library, 6622 20th St. E., Fife. 253-548-3323.

April 5: 1 p.m. Book Art with Mitzi Lindgren. Parkland/Spanaway library, 13718 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma. 253-548-3304.

April 7: 3 p.m. “Wild” book discussion. Graham library, 9202 224th St. E., Graham. 253-548-3322.

April 8: 6 p.m. Hiking 101. Milton/Edgewood library, Surprise Lake Square, 900 Meridian Ave. E. Suite 29, Milton. 253-548-3325.

April 8-9: 4 p.m. Write your memoir. Sumner library, 1116 Fryar Ave., Sumner. 253-548-3306.

April 9: 3:30 p.m. and 4:04 p.m. Creating backyard habitats for birds. South Hill library, 15420 Meridian Ave. E., Puyallup. 253-548-3303.

April 9: 6:30 p.m. Wildflower and waterfall photography. DuPont library, 1540 Wilmington Drive, DuPont. 253-548-3326.

April 12: 10:30 a.m. Write your memoir. University Place library, 3609 Market Place W. Suite 100, University Place. 253-548-3307.

April 12: 1 p.m. Hiking with children. Steilacoom library, 2950 Steilacoom Blvd, Steilacoom. 253-548-3313

April 12: 2 p.m. “Wild” book discussion. Summit library, 5107 112th St. E., Tacoma. 253-548-3321.

April 12: 2 p.m. Build a birdhouse. Tillicum library, 14916 Washington Ave. SW, Lakewood. 253-548-3314.

April 14: 7 p.m. “Wild” book discussion. South Hill library, 15420 Meridian Ave. E., Puyallup. 253-548-3303

April 15: 6:30 p.m. “Wild” book discussion. DuPont library, 1540 Wilmington Drive, DuPont. 253-548-3326.

April 16: 6:30 p.m. Hiking with children. Gig Harbor library, 4424 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor. 253-548-3305.

April 17: 1 p.m. “Wild” book discussion. Parkland/Spanaway library, 13718 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma. 253-548-3304.

April 17: 6 p.m. Washington wildlife. Lakewood library, 6300 Wildaire Rd., Lakewood. 253-548-3302

April 17: 6 p.m. "Wild" book discussion. Steilacoom library, 2950 Steilacoom Blvd, Steilacoom. 253-548-3313

April 18: 10 a.m. Book Discussion. University Place library, 3609 Market Place W. Suite 100, University Place. 253-548-3307

April 19: 1 p.m. Wildflower and waterfall photography. South Hill library, 15420 Meridian Ave. E., Puyallup. 253-548-3303.

April 19: 1 p.m. Bike tune-up essentials. Puyallup library, 324 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup. 253-841-5454.

April 24: 7 p.m. “Wild” book discussion. Bonney Lake library, 18501 90th St. E., Bonney Lake. 253-548-3308.

April 24: 7 p.m. “Wild” book discussion. Gig Harbor library, 4424 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor. 253-548-3305.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com

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