Extra chairs were set up last minute at the event at Boswell Books. As Boswell’s Stacie Williams approached the mic to introduce Loyal Mehnert, a “travelanthropist” from Milwaukee who spoke first, Cheryl stepped out into the wings.
There’s something about looking into the eyes of people who’ve survived remarkable things in their lives. As a writer on assignment, I’ve looked into the eyes of a couple who lost everything they owned save for the clothes on their backs in the tornadoes that obliterated parts of Oklahoma City in 1999. Two days a week for an entire semester I looked into the eyes of a student whose boyfriend murdered their infant son; I found out about it when I read the first draft of her final essay.
Just this week I looked into the eyes of a friend at his mother’s funeral who’d buried his brother two months before, as well as a WWII vet who two months ago found his wife dead on the floor between the sofa and the coffee table. She wasn’t feeling well and went out to the living room to sleep because she didn’t want to bother him.
Then there’s Cheryl Strayed, a woman whose mother died seven weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. Cheryl, in her twenties at the time, went into a tailspin, divorcing her husband and stumbling into promiscuity and heroin use. “My mother was the center of the family,” she said at Boswell. “I felt acutely alone, an orphan in the world. I was at the bottom of my life.”
During a trip to REI, a copy of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I: California caught Cheryl’s eye. A year and one backpack full of REI gear later, she entered the Pacific Crest Trail at the Mojave Desert. Her hike ended 1,100 miles and three months later at the Bridge of the Gods, which connects Oregon to Washington at the Columbia River.
“Everything I needed was on my back,” she said. “There was a wonderful completeness about it.”
On the PCT, she began sorting out her life. “When I started, I was all mixed up inside,” said Cheryl. “I thought about how I was going to gather myself into the person I was supposed to be. When I came out the other side, I was less mixed up.”
At Boswell, Cheryl read from Chapter 11, in which she describes an encounter with Jimmy Carter (“no relation”), a reporter for the Hobo Times who mistakes her for a hobo. When I reached the front of the book signing line, she extended her hand.
“Hi, I’m Cheryl,” she said. “How did you find out about Wild?”
I told her I first heard about it when I saw her speak at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Annual Conference & Bookfair in Chicago in March.
“Plus,” I said, “my mother died of cancer, too, in November, ten weeks after she was diagnosed. I wanted to see how you handled that in your book.”
“I am so sorry,” she said.
We chatted about a number of things. Mothers. Being writers. Writing about mothers. Not worrying about what family members think. Writing about it for yourself first, not a publisher.
“There’s nothing else to write about, really,” she said.
When I asked if I could take her picture, Cheryl immediately offered to take one with me. She put her arm around me, I put mine around her. This is a woman who has survived remarkable things, I thought. We were still talking as the photo was being taken.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Music kept going through my head. This post. The things Cheryl said. My mother, and how I can’t believe she is gone, and there really is nothing else to write about. It was a fitful night, like my second night at the AWP conference, when I didn’t sleep at all thinking I’m a miserable failure, I’m not learning a damn thing, what am I doing here?
When I rolled out of bed in Chicago later that morning, all of a sudden everything started clicking.
Lately, it feels like so much has been taken away from me—my best friend Greg, who died suddenly of a massive coronary two years ago, the chance at finally having a halfway decent relationship with my mother. I figured it was time to give up a few things on my own. Certain angers and blames. Certain fears. The short story I’d been holding on to a few months too long, compulsively working and reworking tiny parts of it.
The morning after Boswell, I woke up, made a cup of tea, turned on my laptop, accepted the story for what it is, and submitted it to the first of four literary journals I think are a good fit.
Time to let go. Time to get a move on.
Loyal Mehnert’s current travelanthropy project, Hike for Hope 2012, takes place in Europe and benefits the Catalyst Foundation, which works to fight child trafficking.
Cheryl’s next book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from “Dear Sugar,” her column on The Rumpus, is coming out this summer. Contact your favorite indie bookstore to pre-order.