By Claire Sykes, Photo courtesy of Cheryl Strayed
Talk about wild. In 1995 Cheryl Strayed (B.A. ’97) trekked solo nearly half the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, without experience and lugging an overloaded backpack. In December 2014, nearly 20 years later, her adventure flashed onto movie theater screens worldwide as Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed.
Watching Witherspoon portray her onscreen was, she says, “moving and bizarre, not a normal experience. She gives a beautiful performance, and I feel honored by it,” says Strayed, 46, who lives in Portland, Oregon, with her filmmaker husband, Brian Lindstrom, and their two children.
It wasn’t until years after her trek that Strayed realized she had a story to tell, of grief and gratitude, each step of the trail taking her closer to healing from her divorce, her recovery from addiction, and, especially, her mother’s death from lung cancer. Her literary memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage Books, 2013) landed at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and made first pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
Strayed’s mother looms large in her life as a writer. “My mom always read to me. I have a distinct memory, not yet 4, of leaning against her pregnant belly. And I always loved to write, but it wasn’t until I was grown up that it occurred to me that someone like me could be an author.”
Strayed says her world opened up when she came to the University of Minnesota. “I took my first creative writing class with Michael Dennis Browne. Here was a man who wrote books that did for him what books did for me—make my hair stand on end. Paulette Bates Alden was also a huge influence. She was my most important mentor during those years, and she’s still a dear friend,” she says.
Strayed is also the author of Torch, about a family’s grief after an unexpected loss, and Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns for the website the Rumpus. She’s working on another memoir and a novel. She bluntly admits that writing can be misery. “I struggle with it, but then I remember: I love this. And I love the feeling of living inside a book, not wanting to put it down and staying up all night. I always hope people are similarly enthralled by my books.”
Certainly, millions of Wild readers are. “The writer’s job is to find what’s universal, and Wild is connected to those ancient stories of journey that have been told throughout time. I never wrote the book for people to receive a message, but I’m glad they’re inspired, making them think of their lives in a new way.”