I debated whether it was really a good idea for me to read a memoir in which the author’s mother is diagnosed with lung cancer and then dies seven weeks later. Curiosity got the better of me, though; I wanted to read about someone else’s grief and to see how they got through it. So, this is how I came to read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a book about a young woman who, at a very low point in her life, takes off on an 1,100 mile hike through the wilderness.
I say I read it but really I inhaled it. Of course, there were parts where I had to pinch my nose and hold my breath, like the part where she described her mother’s illness and death, or the part where she described killing her mother’s horse, but overall, I really enjoyed it, not least because I got to live out the fantasy of getting away from it all and doing the work of life some place—any place—but here. That some place being California.
Since I had set out to read the book to see how someone goes about healing, I was completely taken by surprise when I was hit by a wave of nostalgia for California and the one and only time I’ve ever been camping. That’s right, the one and only time I’ve ever been camping was in California. On top of that, I was with a tour group, in a well-appointed campsite that had toilets and showers and electricity and only the faint possibility of bears roaming around at night. It was classified as camping, but only because we slept on warm, dry ground in tents, tents which I’m fairly sure that had been pitched for us.
Before going on this camping trip, I hadn’t fully realised that I was in California. Cocooned in fog and cool temperatures in San Francisco all summer, it didn’t feel that different from Ireland, but once we were outside the city limits the landscape changed to a thin line of reddish-brown ground and a very big sky filled with blue and heat. During the day, we were bussed around to places that were famous in the American psyche, but not in ours. I remember Alice being completely nonplussed by the scenery—all jutting grey rock towering above us—because “meh, we have better at home.”
On one of our days out to Yosemite, I saw backpackers, thin, miserable-looking backpackers, carrying enormous backpacks. It occurred to me that they were on some sort of trail, like the one I’ve just read about, hiking from place to place and setting up camp at each stop. I wanted to ask them why but thought better of it. I think I know better now.
We were a raggle-taggle group, if ever there was one. There was the three of us, young Irish girls on our J1 visas, a handful of hostel types including “there’s always one” guy who never got back to the bus the same time as everyone else, a couple where the man seemed intent on ticking sights off on the list in his head, even sights like Sequoia trees, and then there was another older couple where the man insisted on calling his wife, even when we were in the close quarters of the well-appointed campsite, by imitating the whistle of some bird or other. And there was the tour guide (I think I’ll call him Greg), who in my mind’s eye resembles the boy with blonde dreadlocks that Lisa Simspon was mad about one time. He was definitely very blonde and very tanned and did terribly romantic things like squeeze lime juice on chicken before adding it to curry. Lime juice! What finesse. How exotic, how gourmet.
The last night of the trip was going to be the night, or so I thought, but for some reason, Greg had to go back to San Francisco. In his place, a female tour guide materialised, along with a blender, because we were going to have margaritas, whoo! We all got too drunk, too fast. At least one person puked and I got cranky and told someone to shut up because I think they were trying to get me to speak French, which was a sore point as I was about to go to France for a year and couldn’t really speak French. Everything went a bit sour and then it was the end of the summer, time to go home, which I didn’t want to do, time to go onto France, which I didn’t want to do, time to leave San Francisco, which I didn’t want to do but I didn’t want to stay, either.
A while back, Joseph and I were knocking around the idea of moving back to America. “California,” I said, “wouldn’t that be nice?” I said this, knowing I should be more careful because that summer in San Francisco, I started thinking that it would be really cool to go to New Orleans. A year later, I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in New Orleans. I remember getting a hurricane and asking Alex what was in it and him saying “I dunno, but it’ll fuck you up!” It must have because I can’t remember too much else of my twenty-first birthday, my memories as hazy as the New Orleans streets.
Sometimes I wish I were 21 again, so that I could do all the things I feel like doing right now: getting away, getting off my face, getting out of here. None of those things are really an option, so I have to stay here, in real life, putting one foot in front of the other anyhow.
“I lay down in the mother ash dirt among the crocuses and told her it was okay. That I’d surrendered. That since she died, everything had changed. Things she couldn’t have imagined and wouldn’t have guessed. My words came out low and steadfast. I was so sad it felt as if someone were choking me, and yet it seemed my whole life depended on my getting those words out. She would always be my mother, I told her, but I had to go. She wasn’t there for me in that flowerbed anymore anyway, I explained. I’d put her somewhere else. The only place I could reach her. In me.”—Cheryl Strayed, Wild
And because I can’t resist, a little Joni