Books

Back to Nature: How One Woman's Healing Journey Became a Source of Inspiration for So Many

Author Cheryl Strayed says you don't have to hike 1,000 miles to find consolation — a short walk will suffice.

Photo Credit: tnphoto/Shutterstock

Understanding the human condition is one of the most elusive quandaries in the life of the mind. Henry David Thoreau used the propensity of nature to provide clarity in objectively understanding this condition. He famously sought solace from humanity at Walden Pond, “to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Walden, the book published in 1854 that resulted from his experiences at the pond, became a literary classic, especially celebrated among those who seek refuge in the wilderness as a means to reconnect with nature.

In recent decades, the vital connection between humans and the natural world has weakened as we have become increasingly dependent on technology, while urbanization has absorbed over 80 percent of the U.S. population (compared to only 30 percent during Thoreau’s time). But while humans are becoming more detached from the natural world, there remain literary figures like Thoreau who remind us of a paradise that is increasingly becoming lost.

One of these writers is Cheryl Strayed. After the untimely death of her mother and recuperating from a divorce, Strayed decided to reconnect with nature. She decamped to a 1,100-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, a strand of pristine wilderness in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. But it wasn’t just emotional pain that drove Strayed from civilization. She is at heart a restless soul, an adventurer eager to discover all that lay beyond the Minnesota of her youth.

A few years after her reformative journey, Strayed captured her experiences in a memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Shortly after its release, the book became Oprah’s first selection for her book club 2.0, spent 126 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film and inspired a cult following for the author and her work. 

“I think we have this idea that we’re separate from the wild and natural world, we forget that we’re animals,” Strayed said in a phone interview. She added:

I think it’s really an essential nutrient in our life to have that contact with other living things you can only really get by actually going into nature. For me the experience is fundamental in that it really connects me not only to the quietest and deepest places within my own life, but also to a sense of others in the world … It’s sort of an interesting paradox for me. When I’m alone or in that kind of quiet space in the natural world is when I feel the most connected to humanity. It’s a retreat place for me to reflect on our moral obligations to each other and to other living things as well. Sometimes people talk to me about how Wild inspired their life, but they can’t go on a big 94-day hike. For me it doesn’t even have to be that. Honestly, just walking in a city park, getting that little patch of green in your life can make a big difference.

Strayed’s work has increased the popularity of the region that was the setting for her book. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has seen its website traffic and permits issued increase to the point where it had to set a quota for the number of permits issued each day. Strayed has also developed a niche for providing inspirational advice and quotes to her fans. Between 2010 and 2012, she anonymously wrote an online advice column, Dear Sugar, on the website Rumpus. She announced her identity after retiring from the column in 2012, but took up her role once again to popular demand in the form of a podcast.

In her latest book, Brave Enough, released last year, Strayed channels the candid ferocity that made Wild famous in a collection of her quotes that serve as “mini-instruction manuals for the soul.” The title comes from her own quote, “Be brave enough to break your own heart,” a mantra for overcoming fears of risks, adversity and the unknown.

“In so much of the advice that I’ve given on Dear Sugar and in those quotes in Brave Enough, I say things like ‘trust that voice.’ But we all know — and I write about this too — that most of us have at least two voices. One voice says ‘go and do this, and you can.’ The other voice says ‘don’t and you can’t and you shouldn’t.’ Generally I tend to trust the voice that is more affirmative, the voice that asks you to take a bolder path.”

Strayed admitted the cautious voice must be heeded at certain times. “I know I certainly have been in certain situations in my life, for example when I was waiting tables and one of my voices was like, Take this job and shove it, and thankfully I didn’t always listen to that. Sometimes you have to keep on to that job or hold on a little harder to something that doesn’t feel so good in the moment.”

Being brave enough is not necessarily synonymous with reckless abandonment or hasty action, but for someone grappling with two conflicting issues, Strayed advised, “to go a little deeper and interrogate what each of those voices is saying. What are the reasons that you should go hike the PCT, what are the reasons you shouldn’t. I’m a big fan of making lists. So when I really am torn about something, I sit down and lay those reasons out so I can see my decision more clearly.”

Aside from making lists, Strayed confides that the two things she did the most while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail—walking and reading—are her deepest consolation. “I think when I’m feeling really mixed up about something, a walk really eases my mind even if it doesn’t obliterate the problem," she said in an interview with The Establishment. "And in books I find inspiration, consolation, recognition, and perspective which I think is really important when we get absorbed in our own troubles.”

Chelsea Skojec is a writer based in Gainesville, Florida. Her work has appeared in the New York Observer, Huffington Post and LiveScience. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ChelSkoj.

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