Cheryl Strayed talks about her ‘Wild’ journey on the Pacific Crest Trail

Author Cheryl Strayed had a life-changing moment at REI. While she was buying a collapsible shovel to dig out her snowbound truck, the image of a mountain lake on the cover of a guidebook stopped her in her tracks.

Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 23-26. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Author Cheryl Strayed had a life-changing moment at REI. While she was buying a collapsible shovel to dig out her snowbound truck, the image of a mountain lake on the cover of a guidebook stopped her in her tracks.

When she picked up the book and read for the first time about the Pacific Crest Trail, she “felt a sense of blossoming.” It was 1994, and the 26-year-old Strayed was in full self-destruct mode: grieving the recent death of her mother, willfully destroying her marriage and dabbling in heroin. “At that moment, my truck wasn’t the only thing that was buried. I needed to dig myself out,” she said. She decided to hike the trail the next spring in a bold move of self-preservation.

Strayed, whose best-selling memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail” resulted from her ensuing journey, spoke at Thursday morning’s Conservation Alliance breakfast at Winter Market. Her message of the transformative power of the outdoors resonated with the standing-room-only crowd.

Before any transformation could occur, however, Strayed had more basic things to worry about, like staying alive. Naively ill-equipped for the 1,100-mile hike ahead of her, she arrived at the southern terminus in the Mojave Desert with a backpack so heavy she could barely get it on and an unusual way of prepping: “I think I’m the only person who’s hiked a long trail having shot heroin 48 hours beforehand.”

When she crawled into her tent that night, exhausted, “I knew that something had begun and something had ended,” Strayed said.

Over the next three months, Strayed learned how to bear “the unbearable,” both physically and emotionally. “When you have to walk one step at a time for 94 days, it teaches you something really vital about how to keep forward and how to keep walking.”

What kept her going was “the astounding and profound beauty of the wilderness.” And, eventually, she had little desire to be anywhere else. “Something shifted, where the wilderness felt like home,” she recalled. “I understood that I was a part of this world, as much as the rattlesnakes, and the bears, and the frogs that crawled all over me one night.”

And she was grateful to those who had the foresight to create the trail, beginning in the 1930s, saying she sensed their presence during her journey. “I felt those people, and I understood what they had felt. We had different gear, but we had the same spirit and the same heart.”

Strayed said she’s been surprised and pleased at response to the book, and especially by the numerous readers who have written to say they were inspired to venture out on a hike. “I love it that ‘Wild’ has been a consolation to people, but I love probably most of all that it has been a story that helps people believe that the wild places belong to them, too. You don’t have to be an expert to take a walk in the woods.” And because of that, she quipped, “I am responsible for so many lost toenails.”

As for her own skills, said Strayed, “I can say without irony now that I know how to backpack. You guys could go backpacking with me, and we’d be fine.”

Conservation Alliance Executive Director John Sterling preceded Strayed’s talk by detailing some of the organization’s successes in 2012, which included granting $1.3 million to 37 groups and helping achieve conservation victories in nine significant areas, ranging from new marine reserves off the Oregon coast to protecting portions of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock.

Support the Pacific Crest Trail Association

Transformative outdoor experiences like that of Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail can’t happen without the many organizations, donations and volunteers that help build and maintain the great paths through the wilderness.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association’s mission is to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as an internationally significant resource for the enjoyment of hikers and equestrians, and for the value that wild and scenic lands provide to all people.

The organization, among many other outdoor-supporting nonprofits, are here at Outdoor Retailer looking to build new partnerships.

“Our partners can help us to get youth outside and active, protect some of the most beautiful natural areas in America, communicate their commitment to a healthy and sustainable future, and connect their customers to some of the nation’s most pristine and spectacular wilderness,” said Liz Bergeron, executive director and CEO of the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

--Cindy Hirschfeld