Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is the Leslie Feist, the Jennifer Lawrence, the Winona Ryder circa 1994 of international bestsellers. Midwestern housewives loved it. Serious book critics loved it. Friends whose taste you respect loved it. Oprah loved it enough to make it her first pick for Book Club 2.0; Reese Witherspoon loved it enough to option and star in the film adaptation. It sold 1.75 million copies and spent seven weeks at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and still no one seems to resent its author, Cheryl Strayed, who comes across like a real person with a knack for making sense of senseless pain.
The knack was forged in pain: Strayed watched her mother die of cancer less than two months after being diagnosed, at age 45; four years later, after her life and marriage had unravelled, she hiked 1,770 gruelling kilometres along the Pacific Crest Trail. Wild reads with warmth and sincerity. It speaks to how pain can pin us down like a toppled vending machine and how we find our way out from under. And here is a terrible admission: I didn't get it. Parts of it got me, but I didn't understand what hiking had to do with them. This is my problem: An indoor person, I don't understand the relationship between wilderness endurance and heavy, listless agony.
A few days after Wild, the movie, opened in limited release, a friend of mine, Teva Harrison, posted an article on Facebook about her climb up Gros Morne Mountain in Newfoundland. The trip was organized by Young Adult Cancer Canada, which, among other operations, holds adventure retreats for those who have lived with the illness. Last December, Teva, who is in her late 30s, was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer with bone metastases. She heard about the group through a psychologist at her hospital. I asked her if she'd be willing to talk to me about her experience, and she said she'd be happy to.
Teva is small and blond, with big blue-green eyes and a Glinda-like presence. She has a talent for giving affection, and for putting you at ease enough to accept it; she is a deep hugger who can hold your gaze at length without making it weird. Like Strayed, she grew up in a house that her parents built themselves, near Ashland in southern Oregon, where Strayed arrived just as Jerry Garcia died. ("I remember that day," Teva said, when I mentioned this to her. "My mom cried so much.") She went to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and moved to Canada more than a decade ago, after meeting her husband, whom I would describe, with bias, as aggressively delightful. They are rarely apart, but they still go out, and they work parties at the same pace. In their harder-partying days, Teva would sew them matching costumes.
Their house, in Toronto's west end, is warm and open and full of keepsakes, preserves and tinctures and an exotic variety of booze. When I arrived, Teva introduced me to Gingerbread Boy, a four-foot doll from Value Village whom she talked about as if he were a stray. I sat in her kitchen while she cooked dinner for a friend who was due in a couple of hours – pizza with crusts made from a complex of healthy ingredients and sauce whose smell was distracting. She laughed a lot, and showed me the comics she'd been drawing: pithy, gut-punching stories from her life, drawn in pen and ink. She'd had a creative surge since receiving her diagnosis.
Before then, she'd directed marketing for a conservation non-profit. "I used to have a job and a schedule and an idea of the shape of my life," she said. "Physically I spend a lot of time in waiting rooms and hallways and transit, and psychologically I live with a kind of uncertainty that I didn't know was possible. The statistics are super dark. Statistically, women with my diagnosis tend to live an average of three to five years. Some women live much longer. You know, some women have relatively normal lifespans." She stirred the sauce as she talked.
"Someone once explained to me, it's kind of like being a trapeze artist – you're on the trapeze, and then you have to jump and trust that you'll be caught. I don't necessarily have another trapeze to jump to. It's a very different way of living." Teva's cancer is being treated as though it's a chronic condition, which means that her future is in permanent flux. "It's not like I have choices. I mean, my choices are do what my doctors tell me, or possibly die. And that's not a choice."
That's why the adventure retreat appealed to her, she said: It gave her a solid goal at a time when long-term planning had become impossible. Working toward it helped her feel like herself again. She trained for months, knowing that, as she put it, she'd become strong enough to do something that anyone would find hard. "When self-worth is tied to what you accomplish, and suddenly all you're accomplishing is staying alive another day, it's really reductive."
Teva seems very productive to me. I can't make a pita pizza, much less a pizza with a crust made from nuts and grains and cauliflower, in between making art and training to climb a mountain. But Teva is used to making special pizzas after a full day's work at the office, then going out to dance in costumes she sewed herself. She is that kind of person. Teva knew she had a family history of cancer, but not the extent; she'd had terrible back pains, but her doctors couldn't give her an answer. The cancer had metastasized by the time they found the lump.
There is plenty to be said about things like this – "God was a ruthless bitch," Strayed wrote – but nothing that can say it all. Teva is as eloquent as anyone could be, but if she were to fully describe what she's going through, she would never stop talking. So she climbed a mountain. Challenges like that have the power to "displace the sadness for a time, and to displace the monotony of days spent in hospitals," she told me in a Facebook message, after she'd sent me home with a pizza and a side salad, both of them better than any health food I've paid for. "Its very otherness can be a gift, and for me, time spent in nature is unlike anything else, a really potent clarifying force. When I'm in a beautiful natural place, I feel whole and right, like I've found my place in the world."
I think I get it – at least as much as I can, for now: Nature is sublime and chaotic and destructive. It does what it does, it will do what it does to you and those you love and there is nothing you can do about that. Climbing a mountain, or hiking the coast, is a way to be an agent when you don't have a choice – not to spite nature, but maybe to reconcile with it. "It's interesting, taking something that we often think of as metaphorical, like climbing a mountain, and making it literal," Teva had said at the table. "Like, there's something about that, something really powerful in – " She took a deep breath, and her voice softened. "Yeah. I don't even have to explain. You know what I mean."