New York Times best-selling author Cheryl Strayed spoke at Salt Lake Community College’s Grand Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 12, as part of the Tanner Lecture Series on Social Ethics.
Strayed’s book, “Wild,” was inspired by and written about the 1,100-mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that she took alone shortly after her mother’s death. She spoke to the audience about her experience writing her book and what it was like being on the trail by herself.
“The idea of [the PCT] was so magnificent and so grand,” said Strayed. “I love the simplicity, the radical simplicity of this idea that you can set foot in one place and if you kept walking you’d end up in another place and you would journey through things so diverse and profound and wild and I knew that those things would change me.”
An unbearable loss
Strayed spoke that her journey actually began the day her mother died of cancer a few short years prior from when she set out on the trail. She spoke about how her father was abusive; when her mother finally left with her and her siblings, they lived in poverty, but had a happy childhood because of her mother’s nurturing love.
She spoke also of how the grief of losing her mother, the only parent she had left, was so devastating to her that she didn’t know where to turn.
“I lost the only person who ever loved me in that wildly, fierce and particular way that a mother can,” said Strayed. “I had lost this extraordinary person who was my hero.”
Not long after her mother died, she began a downward spiral involving drugs and sex as a way of coping with her emotional pain.
“I did all the things we do when we can’t accept what is true,” said Strayed. “I tried to do what I thought was the right thing. I tried to be strong. I tried to help my family survive this loss. I tried to carry forth the memory of my mom and I also ultimately started to decompose, deconstruct or destruct.”
Healing through hiking
That is when she found a guidebook for the PCT and decided that she needed to hike that trail. She compared her backpack, which was too heavy to lift, to things that people have to carry in life and how they are sometimes too hard to bear.
“I come upon this scene that is about being alone in that hotel room with a pack that I can’t lift, with a weight that I can’t bear that I have to bear,” said Strayed about the scene in her book when she was at the beginning of her hike. “I was grappling with this question, ‘How is it that we bear what we cannot bear?’”
One of her concerns after writing this book is that there isn’t any form of a public display of grief for our culture and that she had a huge weight to carry both physically and mentally that she wasn’t prepared to deal with. Since writing this book she said many people have told her she wrote what they were feeling, which helped them talk about their grief and pain with her.
“We know what it feels like to lose an essential person and for whatever reason our culture hasn’t been able to make room for that knowledge. Our culture has decided that, this moment that we’re living in, to make grief a very private matter,” said Strayed. “We gather in a week or so after the person dies and then go back to work and go back to life and back to everything. But there you are, you know the truth of your interior world. You know the truth of your heart.”
Writing is ‘the bridge between me and you’
Strayed expressed that her writing, and all writing is a conduit for others to tell their story, that artists and writers must have something to say that is conducive to the human experience that answers and addresses those questions of what it means to be human and of our collective humanity.
“I ended my hike at this bridge, The Bridge of the Gods, that spans the Columbia River,” said Strayed. “I think about that so much, that image as a writer, what is the work that artists try to do is always trying to construct that bridge. The bridge between me and you. Between us and them. Between and across cultures, across time, across generations.”
Her book, “Wild,” is soon to be released as a motion picture in December 2014 starring Reese Witherspoon and a brief cameo appearance by Strayed herself.
“The journey that I have been on since the book’s publication has been every bit as wild as the journey I wrote about in the book,” Strayed said.
The Tanner Forum on Social Ethics has brought notable guest speakers such as Edward James Olmos, Elizabeth Kolbert, Jeremy Rifkin and many others to SLCC.
The Tanner Forum exists to provide opportunities for students, faculty, staff and the community to engage in a dialogue of social and ethical issues.