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How Backpacking the PCT Helped Cheryl Strayed Harness Her Inner Strength

Photo: Courtesy of Joni Kabana

Renowned author Cheryl Strayed explores how her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail shaped how she views her own life.

When author and podcast host Cheryl Strayed set out to hike 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), she didn’t know what to expect.

For example, she didn’t know it would become one of the most transformative experiences of her life, or that she would one day write a book about her journey. But both of those things are now true for the Portland-based writer, who wrote the book Wild based on her now-famous backpacking trip, in addition to Tiny Beautiful Things and Torch.

Wild details Strayed’s inspirational PCT trip. But Strayed emphasized that her physical journey on the trail didn’t inspire the book. “What most inspired me to write Wild wasn’t the hike itself, but rather the deeper meaning I uncovered when I set about exploring the question of how we put one foot in front of the other even when it hurts,” she said.

Choosing her path

Although Strayed grew up in the woods of northern Minnesota and had camped and hiked a lot, it was her first time backpacking. “Before my hike, I thought backpacking and hiking were basically the same thing, but they are not. It’s so different to be carrying a heavy pack, to be living outside for weeks on end,” she said. “At the end of a day hike, you return to the comforts of home. At the end of the day when you’re backpacking, you have to make a home for yourself in the wilderness.”

This constant exposure to nature allowed Strayed to notice her surroundings with fresh eyes. “There so much to see in the world when you travel at foot speed,” she said.

Preparing for her trek

Despite being a newbie, Strayed didn’t go into the hike blindly. She ensured she knew where fresh water would be available and packed smartly, including food, a tent for shelter, a water filter, warm clothing, emergency supplies, and a loud whistle to scare off bears. 

The effort was worth it. “My long hike on the PCT is one of the very best things I’ve ever done. I started my hike feeling lost and sad and like I’d ruined my life. I ended my hike feeling strong and centered and ready to move forward in my life with gratitude and joy,” she said, adding that other long hikers she’s met since Wild was published have echoed her sentiments.

As for whether Strayed would go it alone if asked today, she said that, while she enjoys hiking with others including her husband Brian, she would still do it alone. “There is nothing quite like having only yourself to count on. It’s an incredibly empowering experience,” she said. “I’m stronger and braver for it.”

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