Un-Lost in the Woods: How ‘Wild’ Connects with a Wandering Soul

“What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”

-Cheryl Strayed

It is one of Cheryl’s final lines in Jean-Marc Valle’s elegantly directed “Wild”, based on Strayed’s memoir of the same title. The quote comes in a voice-over as Cheryl crosses the “Bridge of the Gods” in Cascade Locks, Oregon, the final landmark of her 94-day trek up the Pacific Crest Trail which spreads from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. While Cheryl does not hike the entire trail, the distance and speed matter less than the personal growth and discovery Cheryl realizes amidst the brutal and arduous conditions of her hike. A former drug-addict whose life spun out of control after the death of her mother in early 20’s, Cheryl’s quest for self-discovery along the PCT as chronicled in her memoir and the film adaptation, display the power not only of being in touch with nature, but also how pushing one’s physical, mental and social limits can result in life-changing enlightenment. Before Cheryl’s journey, she was addicted to heroin, unable to maintain a relationship with a patient and trusting spouse (due to her constant infidelity) and made life choices that would make the most traditional of citizens cringe. By the time she crosses the Bridge of the Gods, it is obvious that Cheryl is not necessarily a different person, but rather the best part of herself, the part she wants to be, the part she was when her mother was alive, when she was happy and most confident in herself. Cheryl didn’t transform into some brand new being because of the thousands of miles she hiked, but rather, freed herself from the gunk and abyss that had held her down and stolen her life in those seven years after her mother’s passing due to lung cancer.

Cheryl’s story chronicled in “Wild” though strikes a chord in all of us in a weird way. The film is breathtakingly filmed sure, and Reese Witherspoon delivers a dynamite performance, probably one of the best of her career (which is saying something considering she won an Academy Award in “Walk the Line”). But what hits you about “Wild” is the familiarity of the story and the theme: the search for understanding of one’s self. We have seen plenty of “road” stories where the characters look to find enlightenment in some kind of journey or traveling escapade. “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novel about him and his friend Dean Moriarty’s quest for self-discovery on the roads and highways across America, echoes a similar theme to Strayed’s tales in “Wild”. People have issues. People are not happy where they are at. And sometimes, you just need to drop everything and just start going in a direction, even if you do not know what the end will be or where it will come.

At the quintessential core, “Wild” is a story about the searching soul, the wandering spirit who is trying to figure out what life’s plan is for them. It connects with all of us so deeply, at any age, whether you are a middle-schooler or in the last legs of your life. As a 28-year-old who is single and moving and changing jobs in a couple of months, it strikes me particularly deeply.  I may not be wearing hiking boots, a big backpack, or being approached by creepy bow-hunting men who enjoy Hamm’s tall boys in the middle of Oregon, but my journey is like Cheryl’s: I am trying to discover and become the person life wants me to be, and I need to search it out in a place that is both familiar and foreign simultaneously in a wonderful and intimidating way.

In two weeks, I will be graduating from Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo. I entered the graduate program for two reasons: to become a certified high school teacher while getting a master’s degree in the process, and to be in the same city and continue a relationship with my girlfriend at the time who lived in Kansas City. Before I came to Kansas City, I worked as a PE teacher at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, SD, working as a volunteer through the Red Cloud Volunteer Program and Americorps. Teaching at Red Cloud and on the Reservation was one of the happiest experiences of my life, especially my second year, where I was dating long-distance with my girlfriend at the time, and really coming into my own as a teacher. In all honesty, it was difficult to make that decision to leave to Red Cloud. Pine Ridge felt like home to me. The people in both the school and general community felt familiar and comfortable. There were many teachers and people I knew that didn’t seem like colleagues, but family members to me. And I was leaving all this comfort, this familiarity, this place where I thrived and at the time fit in for not just grad school, but mostly a relationship, a person, and  a new life that I was sure I was going to transition to and be happy with. California was my home, but I never embraced being a “Californian” by any means. West Coast life had been too fast for me, and the allure of the Midwest, and being in a bigger city in the Midwest all while growing into a relationship I cared deeply about seemed like the right thing, the only thing to do at the time. I would be living in a small apartment in an old, richly historic area of Kansas City, Kansas, teaching PE at a local Catholic School, pursuing my Master’s Degree, and start my new life with my girlfriend and her family. Yeah, I loved Pine Ridge and Red Cloud. But Kansas City seemed to be my final stop in my mind, a place where I could build some roots for the long-term.

I moved to Kansas City in July. By October of that year, my girlfriend and I split. Much like the death of her mom spun Cheryl’s life out of control, I too had lost a grip of where I was and who I was. After we had broken up, I had found myself alone, the only people I knew being an interracial Lesbian couple who ended up moving from Kansas City to Denver to be closer to the Rez of Pine Ridge by December (though the months I did spend with them was enjoyable and I am forever grateful for their support in that time). And not only was I alone, but I was miserable. It’s difficult to deal with a breakup in general, but when you tend to be more introverted and over-analytic, breakups like the one I had proved to be backbreaking at times. Sure, I wasn’t taking heroin or having random sex with partners like Cheryl, as chronicled in “Wild”, but I was doing my own things to fill in that void of heartbreak and loneliness that stuck with me everyday.

I took many different paths to get over the pain and depression. I went to a youth group “fellowship” meeting that a classmate of mine invited me to in Overland Park. The idea of weekly meetings talking about God, the bible and things to do for the “church” didn’t strike me as engaging, so I stopped going after the initial meeting. I went to a priest at Rockhurst for Spiritual Direction, but it was obvious by our first meeting he was more concerned about getting me to join the Jesuits than talk about the issues I had. The Jesuit vocation had already failed once for me, and I don’t think re-entering was going to solve any problems for me soon. I even got in a relationship with a beautiful single mother of three, thinking that not only a relationship was what I wanted but a family  as well, even if the children were not my own. 11 months into that relationship, not only did I find out that fatherhood was something I was not ready or prepared for yet, but she also figured out that I wasn’t necessarily the best fit for her and her kids as well, with the age (we were 7 years apart, her being 7 year older) and job factors (she was also uncomfortable with the hours demanded of me as a teacher) being too much for her to handle in a relationship.

Almost two years in Kansas City. I have gone through two breakups, seen two close friends move away, and have worked at two different schools. Much like Cheryl in that period of life after her mother’s death, there have been a lot of good and bad decisions made in my journey of life in my 20’s. I learned some values such as patience, flexibility and resiliency during these past two years. At the same time, I have struggled to find a fit in Kansas City, and the two past relationship failures have also displayed to me that maybe it was time to move on somewhere else, start anew, with a clean slate or at least a better one.

With my master’s degree being done in May and in the middle of making a contract decision in February, I felt the need to do something. I wasn’t necessarily depressed after the relationship with my second ex in Kansas City ended, but I wasn’t exactly happy or fulfilled either, and I didn’t feel I was going in the right direction. Something had to be done. I didn’t pick up a PCT book from the local REI. Instead, I put in a job application at my old school, Red Cloud, this time in the high school for a business teaching position (my certification is in Secondary Ed Business). A month later, I interviewed and accepted the position. When I first left Red Cloud, I thought I would never go back. And for a while, maybe a year, especially when I was dating my second girlfriend in Kansas City, I thought I would never go back either. But I had visited South Dakota twice while living in Kansas City, and both times it was difficult to leave. Why? Because it felt comfortable, it felt like home, it felt where I needed to be, where I was called to be. That is why I put in my application there in February, that is why I accepted the position in April, and that is why I will be moving there in July. I do not know if that is where I will be for the rest of my life, but I know Red Cloud and Pine Ridge is calling me to be there, to explore this journey, much like the PCT called Cheryl to her own journey on the trail.

The experience of Kansas City these past two years has been something. I have grown a lot in these two years. I have experienced a lot of heartache, but a lot of great, satisfying joys as well. It is going to be tough to leave some people here in Kansas City. There are some friends I have grown close to that I know I will miss come Fall of next year. At the same time though, I know the journey of Red Cloud and Pine Ridge a second time is something that is going to be life-developing. It is not the same Red Cloud I left two years ago. A lot of the people I was close with a couple of years ago are gone. And because of that, it is scary and exciting. Scary in the sense that I can’t predict what anything is going to be like, but exciting because I know this second journey is going to be different in all kinds of shaping ways.

Cheryl Strayed made a trip on the PCT to re-discover the woman she was meant to be. I am going back to Red Cloud and Pine Ridge to re-discover who I am meant to be both as a teacher and person. Much like the PCT, this journey back will have its obstacles, and like Cheryl, I may overpack in some ways and underprepare in others. And I know there will be various pains and challenges in the journey both physically, mentally and emotionally.

But despite all the risk and unknowing, I believe the journey will help me discover more about myself, and push me to see a little bit more clearly through thick, gray, intense haze of life. As my Aunt said when I first went to Red Cloud, this second trip to Red Cloud is “another exciting adventure in life” and I am open to whatever the trail of this adventure has to offer.

“How wild it was, to let it be.”

-Cheryl Strayed