Even before I knew who she was, Cheryl Strayed’s wild words made me cry.
I’d been directed to an anonymous online advice column called “Dear Sugar” on http://www.therumpus.net and w,hat I read made me catch my breath—not to mention devour as many of her past columns as I could. Not to diss Ann Landers, but Sugar’s advice hummed with energy, and thus demanded readers paid attention.
While she carefully dispensed advice to those who’d come to points in their lives where things couldn’t go on the way they were—whether their problems involved a cheating spouse, an addiction of some sort, the loss of a child, general depression or lesbian bed death—Sugar answered their queries with as much humanity and moxie as she could muster.
And even though she hadn’t yet come out of the columnist closet, those who tuned in to read her advice on the regular learned more about the writer of the columns than they did those about asking the questions. We found that Sugar had learned to “write like a motherfucker” to stay sane, and that she hadn’t had an easy life. She’d been molested by her grandfather, lost her mother to lung cancer in her early 20s and been briefly addicted to heroin and bad boyfriends. But the good news is that, somewhere along the line, she’d reinvented herself.
With a no-holds-barred brazenness—and a bit of a potty mouth—Sugar ordered readers to wake up and smell the reality. To a woman who was haunted by her boyfriend’s sexual past, for instance, Sugar suggested she take the fact that her boyfriend wanted to talk about his former partners as a way to get closer to her, his current love.
“This is called intimacy,” Sugar wrote. “This is called fuck yes. When people do this with us, it’s an honor. And when the people who do this with us also happen to be people with whom we are falling in love, it lets us into an orbit in which there is only admission for two.”
In February, just before her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was published, Strayed hosted a variety of coming out parties that let her loyal readers in on her identity. She concurrently published a book of Sugar’s most popular columns, dubbed Tiny Beautiful Things.
Not too many months later, Strayed was sitting down with talk show guru Oprah Winfrey to discuss Wild, which focuses on the difficult years after her mother died and the decisions that led to her walk more than 1,100 miles alone on the Pacific Crest Trail—from the Mojave Desert to the borders of Washington State.
Even without Oprah’s glowing endorsement—Wild is the book she chose to kick off her new book group—this is a book nobody had to force me to read.
From the beginning paragraphs that recount a moment during the achingly difficult walkabout when Strayed lost one of her hiking boots to the last chapter’s fitting ending at the Bridge of the Gods, the author doesn’t mince words when it comes to sharing with readers why this was the most important journey of her life.
A few chapters in, Strayed allows that she was woefully unprepared for the rigors of the great outdoors (she referenced rattlesnakes, mountain lions and “wilderness-savvy serial killers”). After spending some time wondering what she’d gotten herself into, though, she decided to quell her negative inner voice.
“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed,” she wrote. “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”
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