Excerpted from Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf). ©Cheryl Strayed. 2012
By the age of 26, I’d done a lot of hard things. I’d watched my mother die young—and fast—of cancer. I’d relinquished any hope of having a
father who would be a father to me. I’d divorced a man I loved. I’d tangled my sorry self into a ridiculous knot of ill-advised sex and drugs. And I’d set out to hike 1,100 miles alone through the wilderness of California and Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail.
That the last thing was a good one didn’t make it any less hard. There was still the reality of my tremendously heavy pack and the endless mountains I had to climb beneath its weight; there was still the unease of a string of days without encountering another human. One afternoon two weeks into my 94-day trek—after I’d been charged by a bull, rattled by a rattlesnake and startled by a bear, and after I’d given up on ever repairing my blistered feet—I thought, This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The very thought seemed like a betrayal.
Of course, living without my mother was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Leaving my ex-husband, Paul, for the simple reason that I felt I had to, and climbing out of the hell pit I’d dived into the previous year had been hard, too. But hiking the PCT was difficult in a way that made the other hard things seem easier. Perhaps I’d known from the beginning that tackling the PCT was a grab for a cure.
As I hiked that hot day, I could feel the threads of my life unspooling behind me—the old thread I’d lost, the new one I was weaving. I barely noticed the High Sierras, focused as I was on what lay ahead: the Kennedy Meadows General Store, where I’d pick up my first resupply box of dehydrated food and other things I’d packed and addressed to myself weeks before. Collecting it seemed like a monumental milestone, proof that I’d made it at least that far. “Hello,” I’d say. “I’m a PCT hiker here to pick up my box. My name is Cheryl Strayed.”
Cheryl Strayed. Those two words still rolled hesitantly off my tongue. Cheryl had been my name forever, but Strayed was new—officially my name for only a couple of months, since the day Paul and I had filed for divorce. We’d taken on each other’s last name when we married nearly six years before, our two names becoming one long four-syllable name, connected by a hyphen. I never liked it. It was complicated and cumbersome. “Cheryl Hyphen-Hyphen,” a grumpy man I’d briefly worked for had called me, flummoxed by my actual name. I saw his point.
In the year that preceded our divorce, when Paul and I were separated but unsure of our plans, we sat down together with a set of do-it-yourself divorce documents we’d ordered over the phone. As we paged through them, we came across a question about the name we’d each have after all was said and done. The line beneath the question was blank. We could write anything, be anyone. We laughed about it, making up new identities—names of movie stars and cartoon characters and strange combinations of words that weren’t rightly names at all.
Later, alone in my apartment, I was haunted by that blank line. I couldn’t continue to be Cheryl Hyphen-Hyphen, nor could I go back to having the name of the girl I used to be. So while Paul and I hung in limbo, I pondered the question of my last name, scanning words that sounded good with Cheryl and making lists of characters from novels I admired. Nothing fit until, one day, the word strayed came into my mind. Immediately, I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine. Its definitions matched my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something.
I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances but because even in my darkest days—the ones in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. I had strayed, and I was a stray; from the places my straying had brought me, I knew things I hadn’t known before.
Cheryl Strayed, I wrote down repeatedly on a page of my journal, like a girl with a crush on a boy she hopes to marry. Only the boy didn’t exist. I was my own boy, planting a root in the center of my rootlessness. Still, I had my doubts. After all, I’d privately mocked peers in my hippy, artsy circle who’d invented new names: Jennifers and Michelles who became Sequoias and Lunas, Mikes and Jasons who became Oaks and Thistles. I took a road trip, and each time I happened across a guest book, I signed it Cheryl Strayed, feeling as if I were forging a check.
By the time Paul and I decided to file our divorce papers, I’d worn in my new name enough that I wrote it without hesitation on the blank line. It was the other lines that gave me pause, the ones demanding signatures that would dissolve our marriage. Those were the ones I completed with trepidation. I believed in almost equal measure that divorcing Paul was the right thing to do and that by doing so I was destroying the best thing I had. In the end, as I did in making the decision to hike the PCT, I made a leap of faith and pushed on in a direction I’d never been.
The day we signed the papers, it was April and snowing. We sat across from a woman named Val, who was an acquaintance and a notary public. We’d chosen her to officiate our divorce because we wanted it to be easy. We wanted to believe we were still gentle, good people. That everything we’d said to each other six years before had been true. “What was it we said?” we asked when we finally decided that we were going through with this.
"Here it is," I yelled after rifling through some papers and finding the vows we’d written ourselves. We’d given them a title: The Day the Daisies Bloomed. "The Day the Daisies Bloomed!" I hooted, and we laughed so hard at the people we used to be. Then I set the vows back where I’d found them, unable to read on.
We’d married when I was 19 and he was 21. We were wildly in love and felt we had to do something to demonstrate that. But even married, we had no intention of settling down. We moved to Dublin, then London. Then we returned home, and, not long after that, my mother died and we did all the things that led us here, to this place. And now we were getting divorced.
In Val’s office, Paul and I held each other’s hand under the table as she examined our documents. As she made sure we’d gotten everything right, I felt a kind of loyalty rear up in me. I was unified with Paul against whatever contrary claim she might make.
"It all looks good," Val said, before pressing her notary stamp on some papers and sliding others across the table for us to sign.
"I love him," I blurted when we were nearly through, my eyes filling with tears. "I mean, this is not for lack of love, just so you know. We love each other." Paul remained silent.
"I know," Val said.
"And it’s all my fault," I said. "He didn’t do anything. I’m the one. I broke my own heart."
Paul reached to me and squeezed my leg, consoling me. If I looked at him, I would say we should forget about divorcing and he’d agree. But I didn’t look. Something inside of me whirred like a machine that I had started but couldn’t stop.
"Now that we’ve been through all this, we should stay together," I had joked in the wake of our last heartrending discussion, the one when we’d finally decided to get divorced. We were in my apartment, both of us too shattered by the time the sun set to get up and turn on a light.
"I hope you can do that someday with someone else," I said when he didn’t reply.
"I hope you can, too," he said.
I wanted to believe I was capable of finding the kind of love I had with him again, but it felt impossible. I thought of the last days of my mother’s life, which I’d thought were the worst ones. When she died, I’d have given anything to have them back. Maybe once Paul and I were divorced, I’d miss these days, too.
"What are you thinking?" he asked. I switched on the light.
It was up to us to mail the divorce documents. Together, Paul and I walked into the snow and down the sidewalk until we found a mailbox. Afterward, we leaned against the cold bricks of a building, crying and murmuring regrets.
"What are we doing?" Paul asked after a while.
"Saying good-bye," I said.
We stood face-to-face. Snowflakes were melting in his hair, and I wanted to reach up and touch them, but I didn’t. We stood there, looking into each other’s eyes.
"Cheryl Strayed," he said after a while, my new name sounding strange in his voice.
It sounded less strange spoken by the woman who worked at the Kennedy Meadows General Store on the hot afternoon I finally arrived. When she said, “Cheryl Strayed,” I nodded exuberantly and then waited while she went into a back room of the store to get my resupply box.
"Is this yours?" she asked when she returned a few moments later. She held it up so I could see my new name in bold, black marker across the top.
"Yes," I said, taking it from her. "It’s mine."