Book review: “Wild: A journey from lost to found” by Cheryl Strayed

When we first meet Cheryl, the author and narrator, she is lost. At the tender age of 26 she finds herself in a dark place, at the bottom of a downward spiral that began when she lost her 46 year-old mother to cancer four years earlier. Cheryl is one of three siblings, brought up mostly in a single parent family, the mother having left the children’s violent alcoholic father when they were still very young. The mother later married Eddie, a calm and steady influence, and they lived a humble, fairly rural and, most importantly, stable existence. With her mother’s death, however, Cheryl’s life begins to collapse in on her. She and her siblings seem unable to bond in their grief, Eddie drifts away and soon finds another partner and step-children who quickly take over the family home, and Cheryl sets off on a path of toxic behaviour (infidelity, drug-taking and serial unemployment) that will drive a wedge between her and her husband.

Thus the scene is set. When she has reached rock-bottom, Cheryl decides that they only thing she can possibly do is set out on a 1,100 mile solo hike on one of the toughest trails in north America. The Pacific Crest Trail runs from the Mexican border in the south, to the Canadian border in the north, through California, Oregon and Washington. The trail is, over 2,600 miles in total so the author covers only part of it, in a trip that will take her around three months. That’s enough! The terrain is inhospitable, the landscapes change from desert to snowy mountain top, which means that, since she carries almost all of what she needs with her, she requires clothing and equipment for a wide range of climatic conditions. The year that she chooses to travel happens to be one of the worst for snowfall in the mountains. The journey is treacherous enough so Cheryl decides, like all but the most intrepid of hikers, to bypass the worst affected part of the trail and rejoin lower down.

The Pacific Crest Trail

Cheryl’s constant companion on her hike is ‘Monster’, the name she gives her enormous backpack. It is monstrously heavy and carrying it gives her constant pain, from the agonies of bearing the weight, to the blisters and open wounds it wears on her hips. Her other source of pain is her boots, bought in good faith, but which turn out to be too small for a hike of this type and which lead to various foot problems, including blackened and lost toenails. But these burdens, the pains, the wounds, are a metaphor for the emotional pain that she is enduring, and as she grows fitter and stronger, and as she learns to beat her immense discomfort, so she learns to live with her grief and to make peace with her suffering. This journey is a meditation on pain. It is therapy.

The book would not be as interesting if it were a trail diary alone. Rather, it is part memoir, as the author gives us the background to her life, to the decline and fall that brought her to the momentous decision to undertake such an enormous mental and physical challenge. It is also a lesson in how sometimes the toughest things can be the most important. The author meets people on the trail with whom she develops lasting bonds and learns that she has depths of resourcefulness that she did not know she had. There are also moments of peril – when her pre-packed supply box does not arrive at the ranger station on time, when she loses a boot over the side of a mountain and has to hike for several days in her camp sandals, attached to her feet by duck tape, when she meets two suspicious characters, ostensibly out to hike and fish, but who seem to take an unnatural interest in the fact she is alone, and then ruin her water purifier to boot.

This is a fascinating story that I thoroughly enjoyed. I was on holiday when I read it and began fantasising about long-distance walking trails! Perhaps just the Trans-Pennine for me though – I don’t think I need anything on this scale!

Highly recommended.

A few days in Madrid

It has been half term in our household this week. My husband took our daughters off to visit family so I decided that I would take a trip with our eldest, to spend some quality mother and son time together. He will be taking his Spanish A level this summer so I thought it would be good to try and get him to Spain for a bit of speaking practice. I booked the flights three months ago and chose Madrid mainly because we got a fantastic price and the flight times were great. To be honest, though, I was open to going anywhere in Spain; I have been to Barcelona, San Sebastian and the Southern tip around Jerez and Tarifa, and have enjoyed my trips there very much.

Madrid, where both the grand architecture and the narrow streets bring equal pleasures.

Madrid is one of the must-see European cities. There are not too many major ‘sights’ to see, so it is not overwhelming in the same way that, say London or Paris can be (visitors to London: where do you start?), and they are mostly within a compact city centre area. You can take some great trips out of the city, for example to Toledo and Segovia, both within an hour or so, but we decided that remaining central would best suit our purpose. It is a city for walking, eating and art. We took a relaxed approach to sightseeing, soaked up the atmosphere and enjoyed it immensely.

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Our companion was the Lonely Planet guide to Madrid (I find these are consistently the best travel books). On the first day we followed the suggested walking tour of old Madrid, taking in, amongst other things, the Palacio Real, the cathedral, the Plaza Mayor and, very importantly, the iconic Chocolateria De San Gines, for the ubiquitous churros and hot chocolate (take a bottle of water with you, it is very rich!)

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Madrid’s oldest tree, planted 1633

On the second day we walked round the wonderful Parque del Buen Retiro, the huge park to the east of the city centre, with its wonderful gardens, footpath, boating lake… and more churros! Madrid’s oldest tree, a Mexican conifer planted in 1633 and with a 52m trunk circumference, stands impressively opposite the Puerte Felipe IV entrance. Near the border of the park is the stunning Museo del Prado, which we went to in the afternoon. Most galleries of this stature need two or three visits to even begin to appreciate the collection, but if you are on a short visit it is worth just taking in the highlights, and the museum provides a handy leaflet with all of these listed. Our guidebook recommended going soon after opening to avoid the queues, but we went around lunchtime and there was no queue at all. The cafe in the museum was over-priced and not particularly good.

On the third day we went to the far west of the city centre to the Parque del Oeste. We planned to go on the Teleferico, a 2.5km cable car that travels over the vast green Casa de Campo, but sadly it was closed for maintenance (an issue with low season). We went to the tiny church of Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida (above) where there are some incredible Goya frescos, and the ancient Templo de Debod, a gift from President Nasser of Egypt, dismantled and transported brick by brick in 1968 (sadly, also closed). We walked back along Gran Via and browsed the shops. I always like to get the measure of a place by checking out its bookshops and Madrid has some fantastic ones, with plenty of foreign language books. There was even a bookshop devoted entirely to mountains (Libreria de Montana, above) in the Huertas district!

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Sculpture in the garden of the Centro de Arte Reine Sofia

On our final day we had plenty of time before our late afternoon flight to take in the modern art gallery of Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, not far from where we were staying. I was particularly keen to see Picasso’s Guernica, a painting I have long admired. It is truly stunning and I am thrilled to have been able to see it in the flesh, as it were. It is surely one of the finest anti-war artworks ever, and, 80 years after it was created, is as relevant as ever. It was worth the €10 entrance fee on its own just to see this, but there are many other stunning works of art to take in, including films explaining the context and history, and the main highlights are all on the second floor, again, useful if you have limited time.

My son and I are both fairly frugal by nature so I was keen to try and do the trip on a budget. We stayed in a little apartment in the Lavapies district, which was quiet and is great value. You can eat fairly cheaply, because there is so much choice and the quality is reliably good (definitely unlike London!). We spent €50-60 a day on lunches and dinners, including a glass of wine with meals. I bought a 10-journey Metro ticket, but we didn’t use it all up as we were able to walk nearly everywhere. That would no doubt have been less comfortable in the summer. February was a great time of year to go and I would definitely recommend it – the weather was mild and sunny and it wasn’t too crowded. We went to the cinema a couple of times, and I was pleasantly surprised to find tickets were only €5-6 each – that’s even cheaper than my little local cinema! My son found this very useful for his Spanish.

Madrid is a fabulous city, the people are warm and friendly, the food is incredible, it’s great value and I recommend it highly. We are completely churro-ed out though!

Have you been to Madrid – what were your highlights?

 

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Au revoir Brittany! Back to blogging!

Although it’s been a wonderful summer, it feels, as always, good to get back to my desk, to my computer and to my blog. I’ve had nearly 3 weeks ‘off’ – I use that term more because it is a general expression, not because I see it as any kind of chore. In truth, I have missed my blog! The reason I have posted so rarely is because I was a) doing so much reading, b) got totally sidetracked by a nearly impossible jigsaw puzzle at our holiday home (!), and c) was just having a great time with the family. When I wasn’t reading we were cooking, eating, talking, staring at the stars, a sight we are not so used to in our light-polluted Greater Manchester suburb, getting out and about, all the things you do on holiday, really. It’s been a fantastic break for all of us and we have all come back newly energised to face into the new academic year (it’s another big one for our family), ready to meet new challenges and set new goals.

974db1fd-e67b-4366-9e06-9cac492fef1b-1125-00000161832e76ce_fileI managed to read all three of the books I took on holiday with me, and enjoyed all of them immensely. They were Harvesting by Lisa Harding, Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, the August choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. I’ll be posting reviews of them over the next few weeks.

So before I launch into the ‘new year’ (I’ve posted here before that I find September a more effective time to start things than January), I would like to close off the summer with some pictures of beautiful Brittany. We stayed in Cancale, well-known for its oysters, something I eat maybe once every couple of years – twice in a fortnight is enough!

I loved Mont-St Michel, over the border in Normandy. It was absolutely thronged, but we arrived early afternoon and by 5pm the crowds had thinned significantly.

We visited beautiful Dinan, ‘town of history and art’, a couple of times and I loved it. One tip if you go there – don’t expect to be able to get lunch after 2pm!

Another favourite was Ile-de-Brehat, a wonderful island, just off the coast near Paimpoul. It’s tiny, rugged, and there are no cars. You can hike from one end to the other, or as we chose to do, cycle all the way round.

Finally, from my holiday photo album, recognise this?

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I was delighted to be able to visit St Malo, setting of Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel All the Light You Cannot Seea truly beautiful town.

Have you ever visited Brittany or been to any of these wonderful places?

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Easter Greetings

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Easter is falling rather early this year, and with the weather not looking great for the UK this weekend, it could be a rather chilly Spring break. Perfect for spending time with a book! My kids will be getting the usual smallish chocolate egg from the Easter mummy bunny, plus a book token, a tradition I started a couple of years ago.

I’ll be away for a few days and have been giving some thought to what reading material I will take with me. I will, as always, take far more than I will actually get through, but I do that because I get a bit nervous when I have only one book available to read! I like to have a choice and nearly always have a couple of books on the go, in any case.

I’ll be taking Paul Auster’s 4321, about which I posted here a couple of weeks ago. I started it last Autumn and have found it really hard-going. I have been pondering whether to give up on it, but I think I’m going to give it one last focussed go, to see how I get on.

I’ll also be taking Frankenstein, the 1818 classic by Mary Shelley, which celebrates its bicentenary this year. I’m reading that with my girlfriends from my book club and we have booked to see the new production that is currently running at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in a couple of weeks. Really excited about that.

That’s it. Just the two books! That demonstrates an unusual realism about my reading and my commitment to doing justice to 4321, I think. (Although I do have a couple of back up books on my e-reader. Just in case.)

I bought a couple of magazines for the journey (I can’t read a book in a car) and nearly choked when I discovered they were £4.30. Each! Is it really that long since I bought a magazine? You can buy half a book for that!

Have a wonderful Easter, with plenty of reading and chocolate!

What will you be up to this Easter? What are you reading?

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