Saturday, December 20, 2014

On Reading Wild and What Pain is Good For

I have to admit up front that I picked up the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed with some trepidation. I've tried to read dozens of books about long-distance hiking adventures and most of them were disappointing. I mean, come on, how can you make such an amazing journey sound so trite and boring? Having hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, over 2100 miles, in six and a half months, I have decided opinions on the matter.

Some accounts I’ve read of thru-hiking my beloved Appalachian Trail feel so numb, as if the pounding of hiking the two thousand miles over mountains and valleys had deadened the author's senses by the time she sat down at the computer to sort through her journey.     

What I've figured out is the experience is incredibly difficult to capture, either in words or pictures. It's just so...huge, intricate, intimate, impersonal, profound, and deceptively simple. I myself have been working on writing down my experience on the AT (Appalachian Trail) for over seventeen years and have yet to find a way to express what it did to me, how it changed me. But I think Cheryl Strayed may have done the best job of writing about a long-distance hike I've ever read.

Now, let me make clear that Cheryl didn’t hike the Appalachian Trail, but the decidedly more remote Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border through the Mojave desert and over the Sierra Nevadas. The PCT has it’s own culture, lore, and issues to overcome, as hiker buds who have hiked both the AT and PCT have told me; however, I have no doubt there are fundamental similarities to the impact on the soul. 

I mean, I'm only 85 pages into the book, so I may be wrong, but what I've read so far has pried open my heart. I feel a connection with the author that I know is quite real. I can't read more than a few pages of Wild before I have to put the book down and take a slow, deep breath that takes me into that quiet, still place deep inside where I never left the Trail.

In there, I remember. I don't mean I remember dates and places or even specific events--although if you sit me down with some trail buddies, that all gets sorted through, too--I mean I remember how the trail felt. Because most of what the trail taught me was a kind of wordless wisdom, something I’ve struggled to articulate for years. Inside my quiet place, I feel the sweat trickle down the back of my neck, the hot, sticky, thick air of a heat wave in mid-summer. I feel the puff of warm air that I have to make do with instead of the stiff, cool breeze I'm longing for.

I remember and the images and words come…as Cheryl said "like a god thundering into my head".  This morning as I read about her first real desire to quit--only 10 days down the trail--I remembered my own misery. My bones, muscles, and joints throb with the memories, the ghostly aches and sharp pangs from seventeen years ago when I hiked up and down mountains all day. Pain. Real pain. I remember having no water left and the spring that the guide book promised no where to be found, dried up in the blazing, relentless summer drought. I remember the burning, stabbing pain of blisters on my hip bones that no amount of adjusting or padding would alleviate.

But I hiked on because hiking the Appalachian Trail taught me this: There are miserable, soul-tattering moments in life, but they are just that-moments. And you don't experience that kind of misery unless you're doing something profoundly worthwhile. Those miserable moments are evidence you are making real progress. They mean you are making an effort, that you are making miles. 

I grew to adore maps, especially topographical maps that showed the land contours I had been privileged to get to know intimately that day. No where else, at no other time in my life was it so obvious that my pain and suffering, my bliss and exuberance were NOT meaningless. I could look back over the day's miles and say, "Look what I accomplished today! Look at all those miles over that wicked terrain." I would pass out in my sleeping bag thoroughly content with my day's accomplishment, my aching legs thrumming and twitching like a puppy's.

Here in the "real" world, it's sometimes hard to see where we've been and appreciate the day's hard work. The map for our life hasn't been plotted; we are creating it as we live. We have to rely on word counts, empty or full inboxes, invoices, bank account balances, other's descriptions, and even sometimes on concepts so amorphous they are impossible to describe as evidence of our labors. Because of this, when the misery arrives, it can be difficult to hike on. It often feels like "what in the world am I doing this for? It's downright torturous. There are more enjoyable things I could be doing with my time."

But I submit that the misery is evidence of our hard work. Instead of letting it derail us, even end our journey, we should use it to fuel the fire. Honestly, if we weren't working so hard, it wouldn't hurt so much. We may need to take a day off, lick our wounds, refuel, and recharge, sure, but we don't need to quit. That's not our pain's purpose.

Indeed, pain can be a warning to be careful, that we're crossing some line that we might not want to cross, that we need to change the way we're doing things. But I submit that pain can also be evidence that we are doing something that needs to be done, that we are making personal progress. 

I've given birth, I lift weights, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail and in every instance, pain let me know each and every time that I was on the right path, doing what needed to be done in order for something extraordinary to come into my life.

Okay, back to reading. This may take a while. See you when I’m done the book.


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