Hiking therapy with Cheryl Strayed

This post has been sitting hiding in the outskirts of my desktop for a while now. Although this is one of my most significant pieces of writing, I haven’t gotten around to finishing it and putting it out there. Read on and you’ll learn exactly why that is.

Let me start at the beginning.

A while back I was looking for some books to read over the summer. I was feeling a bit lost and I needed to read something that felt a little closer to home than all my Victorian books. That’s when I found Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Since I live in quiet little Belgium, I hadn’t experienced the hype around this novel. That was before I bought and saw Oprah’s tamp of approval on the cover. Considering this novel was loved by such a huge crowd, I was a surprised to find out how personal it felt to me.

Wild tells the story of Cheryl Strayed, how she loses herself after the death of her mother, and how she finds herself again when hiking the Pacific Crest Trail y herself. It’s a deeply personal story that censors very little and reveals a lot about the practical side of grieving. The realism that struck is achieved by the details: both concerning the places she visits and the random thoughts that enter her brain while hiking.

Here are the parts that really hit home:

  • Cheryl Strayed lost her mother to cancer at the age of 22. At that same age, I lost my father to leukemia.
  • Her mother died 49 days after receiving her diagnosis. My father held on for 104 days.
  • Around 4 years later, Cheryl leaves to hike the PCT Trail in the hopes of finding herself again. In the aftermath of losing her mother, she became numb. She destroyed her marriage with repeated infidelity, and destroyed herself with heroin. Let’s just say I had I had a hard time dealing.

That 4 year anniversary went by two weeks ago and I am also still feeling lost. Only a month ago, a friend of mine asked if I’m ok now, so many years after. That’s when I had to tell her that “Time heals all wounds” is a lie. You can say that life goes on, but time alone does not have the power to heal a wound. And if it does, it leaves a nasty scar that flares up at the most inconvenient moments and makes you cry every time you look at it. Usually when you’re at a party or somewhere else that’s incredibly public.

Reading Wild actually made me feel both connected to and estranged from my father. I so badly wanted to make him read it!! I knew he would love it, but he would also mock Cheryl Strayed for the amount of stupid decisions she makes on the trail and for her lack of basic survival skills.

My father actually had those skills. He could find his way home from anywhere in the world and could splint a broken bone if needed. And that definitely came in handy, because my innate clumsiness meant he had to come to my rescue countless times. I keep thinking how proud he would be that I climbed Mount Kinabalu on my vacation in Malaysia two years ago. Even though I almost passed out at the top from both a painful lack of fitness and the altitude, I know he would have been really impressed (and a little bit jealous).

Back when my father was in hospital, he always asked for more books to read. When checking my book collection for a fresh supply, I put so much effort into giving him a diverse collection so he would always have something to suit his mood. One book he absolutely loved was Gulliver’s Travels. I think he even chastised himself somewhat for not having read it before. What I didn’t expect was his reaction to The Book of Kells, by R.A MacAvoy. It was just a fantasy novel, centred around the famous 9th-century illuminated manuscript. (If you haven’t never heard of it, check my post on my trip to Ireland.)

I am ashamed to admit I still haven’t read that book. I only bought it on a whim because it was on sale. When my father was released from hospital for two weeks, he said “I feel like I understand you more now after reading this.” Remembering these words now truly breaks my heart. On the one hand, I feel like I need to read that book to find out what he meant. But on the other hand, I am afraid of the emotional roller-coaster it will inevitably put me on. But I guess that’s for a future post.



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