WILD

 I’ve had an excellent couple of weeks: old friends, long train rides, hill stations, morning markets, sleeper buses, waterfalls, new fruits, new friends, new plans – it feels like during the past ten days I’ve lived two, maybe three lives. Then again, I almost always feel like that nowadays.

But I’m not going to post about any of it, at least not now. That’s because, after approximately 14 days of not cycling, I’m itching to hit the road, and I know that if I start to write now, I’ll be wrapped up for the next three or four hours, meaning I’ll sleep short and not get out until noon tomorrow. That simply won’t do. The computer will be off by midnight, the bags will be packed by one, and I’ll catch an insufficient six hours of sleep before the roosters start their routine.

While I postpone informing you about my doings in Vietnam, what I’ve got to hold you over are some excellent quotations from a book I started and finished during the 34-hour train trip from Hanoi to Saigon. The book is Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed. It’s about a woman who somehow gets the crazy idea to sell everything she has, abandon everyone she knows, and go on a long, excrutiating journey for reasons unknown. Remind you of anyone you know?

In addition to being a terrific adventure story, Strayed’s book does a great job of describing some of the extremes – both physical and emotional – that one goes through on such a trip. Of course, her trip was much more hardcore than mine has been (so far!), and her pre-trip life was also much more fraught with drugs, sex, and tragedy than mine has been (so far!), so don’t be surprised if it’s a bit more dramatic than what you usually get from me. I wonder – if I spent a little more time reflecting, could I come up with stuff like this?

In the case that you’re not interested in reading about anyone but me, just read the following paragraph and go back to your normal life.

My plans for the next two weeks: Ride a 600km arc from Hanoi down to the Laos border, then up through the hill tribe regions, over Vietnam’s highest mountain, through another famed hill tribe region, then across the border crossing at Lao Cai / Hekou into China for a 700km sprint along the red river until Dali, where I’m hoping to catch a Korean friend who’s been cycling this-a-way since Barcelona. For months I’ve been planning to take it easy – only 50kma day, lots of time to play harmonica and read and write and reflect and what not – but I keep making plans, giving myself deadlines, and kicking my own ass. I guess I like it? Maybe I need it? Whatever, I’m gonna do it, because I feel like it, and I am free.

wild-by-cheryl-strayed.jpg

Here we go. I hope this isn’t illegal. From here out out, all words [except for a few in brackets] are Strayed’s. Thanks for an awesome book.

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At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it.

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But now, here, having only these clothes at hand, I felt suddenly like a fraud. In the six months since I’d decided to hike the PCT, I’d had at least a dozen conversations in which I explained why this trip was a good idea and how well suited I was to the challenge. But now, alone in my room at White’s Motel, I knew there was no denying the fact that I was on shaky ground.

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“How can a book describe the psychological factors a person must prepare for … the despair, the alienation, the anxiety and especially the pain, both physical and mental, which slices to the very heart of the hiker’s volition, which are the real things that must be planned for? No words can transmit those factors …”

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Each time I reached the place that I thought was the top of the mountain or the series of mountains glommed together, I was wrong. There was still more up to go, even if first there was a tiny slope that went tantalizingly down. So up I went until I reached what really was the top.

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The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer-and yet also, like most things, so very simple-was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go. The bull, I acknowledged grimly, could be in either direction, since I hadn’t seen where he’d run once I closed my eyes. I could only choose between the bull that would take me back and the bull that would take me forward.

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I could feel the muscles in my body growing stronger by the day and at the same time, in equal measure, my tendons and joints breaking down.

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I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind.

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These were the questions I’d held like stones all through the winter and spring, as I prepared to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The ones I’d wept over and wailed over, excavated in excruciating detail in my journal. I’d planned to put them all to rest while hiking the PCT. I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips. And also, during that second week on the trail-when spring was on the very cusp of turning officially to summer-because I was so hot I thought my head would explode. When I wasn’t internally grumbling about my physical state, I found my mind playing and replaying scraps of songs and jingles in an eternal, nonsensical loop, as if there were a mix-tape radio station in my head. Up against the silence, my brain answered back with fragmented lines from tunes I’d heard over the course of my life-bits from songs I loved and clear renditions of jingles from commercials that almost drove me mad. I spent hours trying to push ads for Doublemint Gum and Burger King out of my head, an afternoon trying to recall the next line to an Uncle Tupelo song that went “Falling out the window. Tripping on a wrinkle in the rug.…” An entire day was spent trying to piece together all the words of Lucinda Williams’s “Something About What Happens When We Talk.”

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I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away. By the end of that second week, I realized that since I’d begun my hike, I hadn’t shed a single tear.

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If your Nerve, deny you – Go above your Nerve – EMILY DICKINSON [chapter epigram]

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Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before. Living at large like this, without even a roof over my head, made the world feel both bigger and smaller to me. Until now, I hadn’t truly understood the world’s vastness-hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be-until each mile was beheld at walking speed. And yet there was also its opposite, the strange intimacy I’d come to have with the trail, the way the piñon pines and monkey flowers I passed that morning, the shallow streams I crossed, felt familiar and known, though I’d never passed them or crossed them before.

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I was a big fat idiot, yes, one who might die of dehydration and heat exhaustion, yes, but at least I was in a beautiful place-a place I’d come to love, in spite and because of its hardships-and I’d gotten myself into this place on my own two feet.

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It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. That’s what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.

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It didn’t feel like I’d hiked seventeen miles in midnineties heat that day with a pack on my back and duct tape wound around my feet. It seemed as if I’d floated there instead.

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I didn’t want to hurt for him anymore, to wonder whether in leaving him I’d made a mistake, to torment myself with all the ways I’d wronged him. What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?

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Of course, heroin could be had there too, I thought. But the thing was, I didn’t want it. Maybe I never really had. I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in. I was there now. Or close.

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I lowered my sleeping bag and looked at them, and we all laughed. All the time that I’d been fielding questions about whether I was afraid to be a woman alone-the assumption that a woman alone would be preyed upon-I’d been the recipient of one kindness after another. Aside from the creepy experience with the sandy-haired guy who’d jammed my water purifier and the couple who’d booted me from the campground in California, I had nothing but generosity to report. The world and its people had opened their arms to me at every turn.

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Thank you, I thought over and over again. Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know, though I felt it somehow already contained within me. How I’d never see the man in the BMW again, but how in four years I’d cross the Bridge of the Gods with another man and marry him in a spot almost visible from where I now sat. How in nine years that man and I would have a son named Carver, and a year and a half after that, a daughter named Bobbi. How in fifteen years I’d bring my family to this same white bench and the four of us would eat ice-cream cones while I told them the story of the time I’d been here once before, when I’d finished walking a long way on something called the Pacific Crest Trail. And how it would be only then that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I’d always told myself finally revealed.

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Bonus: my NW Vietnam itinerary

Hanoi - Lao Cai

And my Yunnan province itinerary:

Hekou - Dali

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4 Responses to WILD

  1. nikita goud says:

    Beautiful, inspiring….massive love xxxxxxx

  2. nikita goud says:

    Beautiful, inspiring….massive love xxxxxxx

  3. Zucca says:

    Cheryl Strayed is my favorite writer!!!! I am catching up on your blog and your fantastic travels. So envious of you, Michele…. Be safe!!