It’s hard to find a person who doesn’t appreciate the beauty of nature. Everyone loves to exclaim over brilliant works of photography and yearns to travel to the snow-capped mountains of the Alps, or the brightly-colored rainforests of the Amazon, or to the frozen wonderland of Alaska. What most people aren’t willing to do is to put in the exertion that comes with seeing much of nature.
Enter in the literary escapist. There’s nothing new about writers idealizing nature, and creating in it a heaven on earth. Thoreau is perhaps most famous for this, in his Walden, but it’s a common trope in literature. But it is the travelogue that gets the most attention. Because what a memoir captures more than any book or movie or piece of poetry, is that sense of escape and absolution. The traveler escapes into nature, becomes one with nature, and ultimately finds a new purpose. The traveler is lost when he enters, and found when he leaves.
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is one of the most recent iterations of the story. A girl is lost after a failed relationship and the death of her mother. So this girl, who has never hiked a great distance (but did live on a farm, when she was younger, was destitute and used to living with almost nothing) straps on a backpack and heads out to the Pacific Crest trail. The book is remarkable not for its prose, or narrative direction, but for its sense of feminine empowerment. Cheryl maintains her femininity throughout the book — indeed, multiple times she reminds the reader of just how attractive she is — but still manages to complete a vast portion of a hike that tires and beats most of the men that she encounters. It’s not even half as entertaining as Bill Bryson’s far superior A Walk in the Woods, but is more remarkable for appealing to a new demographic — those women of athleisure and moderate athleticism.
The book sold well to begin with, and was picked up not just by Barnes & Noble and Amazon, but also by outdoors retailers, like R.E.I. and NorthFace. In fact, that was where I first encountered the book — sitting beside a tower of water bottles, each of which claimed to do something new and revolutionary to water. And now, most recently, it’s resurfaced in Netflix’s four-part reboot of Gilmore Girls.
The show mirrors the book. Lorelei, the protagonist of the show (argue all you want for Rory, but Lorelei has always been the heart) has a fight with her daughter, has a tenuous relationship with her mother, and is uncertain what exactly she wants from her romantic relationship. So she decides to pack off and head to the Pacific Crest to do the hike from Wild. This woman, keep in mind, has never hiked a day in her life.
She encounters two camps of women; those who read the book, and those who saw the movie. All of them carry the same gear, stay in the same hotel, wear the same clothes, and bring boxes of wine with on short campfires. The park ranger mockingly tells them that they won’t last the night. They all have a tragic story or seek meaning in their lives. Lorelei, who forgets her registration, is unable to hike. Instead, she walks to the back of her hotel and spies a beautiful outlook.
The message is simple enough; the beauty of nature isn’t focused on the nature itself, but on the escape from people. It’s the quiet of nature that is so enticing. This is why people who plan grandiose vacations are often left feeling somewhat disappointed. Though they enjoy the trips, they miss the anticipated catharsis.
I’m a bit more of an outdoorsy person. When I lived in New York, I would at least once or twice a week head to Van Cortland Park and wander the trails. In the middle of the city that never sleeps, I was able to find a park that I could walk for hours without seeing another soul. In Washington I made sure to visit Mt Rainier and the Olympics as often as possible. In North Dakota it’s harder — I’m third hours from the nearest state/national park, and most of the parks here are smaller. Even so, just an hour or so a week of walking by myself, without people, without music, without the bustle or the stress of everyday life — that’s the catharsis that is so often sought and so rarely found. That’s what Cheryl Strayed sought on the trail. Seek out the everyday beauty, and find your once-in-a-lifetime experience in the everyday.