Travel Can Be Therapy—Q&A with Wild Author Cheryl Strayed

(Joni Kabana)

Cheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling book Wild, which sparked a movie about her 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), is the master of solitary and therapeutic traveling. Yahoo Travel spoke to her about the PCT, the healing process she found during the hike, the movie, her future travel plans, and more.

Catch Cheryl live at the Chicago Travel & Adventure Show on Jan. 17. She’ll be speaking at 12:15 p.m. and signing books afterward.

What would you do differently if you hiked the PCT today?

That’s a hard question to answer because on one hand, the reasonable part of me would say I would pack lighter. My pack was so heavy and caused me a lot of physical pain and hardship. Likewise, my boots. I would have shoes that were a better fit to my foot size and shape. But then, in some ways I’m grateful everything was just the way it was, because you never forget a lesson you learned the hard way. That turmoil and suffering and discomfort I went through contributed to making the trip so transformative for me. If everything had been easy, I would’ve had an experience that wasn’t as deep as the one I had.

(Wild courtesy of Vintage Books)

What is the most common thing people ask you about the hike?

People are always saying, “Are your feet OK now? Did your feet recover?” It’s so funny because in fact, they are recovered — but it took a good few years for my toenails to grow back. Especially because I lost both of my big toenails, which it turns out is a big deal. It took them years to come back and another few years beyond that to be entirely normal. I also get asked a lot if I would do it again, and the answer is absolutely. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

We are fascinated by the idea of travel as therapy. Obviously that is some of what it was for you. Could you talk a little about how it was like therapy?

One of the reasons we love to travel is so that we can see our lives anew. Travel allows us to have perspective on home. On my hike in particular, I was away from my normal life, and I was able to see it more clearly, but I was also venturing into very solitary terrain. I had only myself most days. It was all about my thoughts and my actions. I suffered all the consequences of any mistakes I made, and I benefitted from any of the things I did right, and I think that’s an incredibly empowering experience. Whenever you travel alone, you feel really in touch with your own strength. It can be a confidence-building experience. Especially a trip like my PCT hike, where it is so solitary that it forces you to look pretty deeply at all the things about your life that are difficult.

I’ve never gone through therapy, but I know that the process is one of self-examination. Questioning yourself and your experiences and trying to be enlightened by them, by really taking a straight and hard look at them. And that’s exactly what I had to do on the PCT. My mind would wander in directions as I hiked that it wouldn’t go in my normal life. And of course, writing the book was another layer of that because I had to look really deeply at the journey itself. I don’t write for therapy, I don’t hike for therapy, I don’t travel for therapy. But they all three end up being therapeutic in the end.

Pacific Crest Trail( Junaid Dawud/Flickr)

Is that therapy better than Prozac?

I don’t know! I’ve never taken Prozac. I guess I have to try Prozac so I can compare.

One of the wonderful things about being the author of Wild is, in telling my own story, I have been the recipient of so many other people’s stories. So many people see themselves in my journey. People often say to me, “I did a trip like this, too.” Sometimes it’s a hike, sometimes it’s not a hike, but it’s always a journey. Essentially, the travel experience took you outside your regular life and allowed you to see more clearly the life you have at home. I know that’s been transformative to so many people, and not just people in our time. You can look at some of the most ancient narratives we have, and they’re about people going on journeys and coming back changed from them.

That’s got to be really touching personally to know you’re helping so many people realize that same time in their lives.

Oh, it’s incredible. I’ve had all these experiences, meeting Oprah, the fun stuff with the movie, becoming friends with Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. But all of that pales in comparison to the feeling I have when people tell me my book changed their life or moved them in some significant way. That’s so amazing to me. That’s the thing I think any writer hopes for. It means everything to me. I’m totally humbled by it.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild (Everett Collection)

What is it like seeing your story played out onscreen? 

Bizarre. It’s so fun to sit there and watch. I delight in it. Obviously there are hard scenes, some of the saddest scenes of my life are there on the screen. But it’s always a surprise to me. Every time I see it, I kind of can’t believe it.

What are some other trips you have taken since? 

My husband and I hiked for three weeks on the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico. We’ve gone on several backpacking trips. Before we had kids, we traveled all over Guatemala and around Thailand. About a year after Wild came out, our lives had been so crazy because of book events, and I knew we just had to get away. My husband and I and our two kids went on a six-week trip to Australia, Singapore, Laos, Thailand, and Japan. We’ve also gone together to Europe a couple times, to Poland and France and Amsterdam. Travel is a big important part of my life. I feel like it’s an investment. Some people invest in boats or cars or houses. I invest in experience. I think one of the greatest gifts I can give my children is to show them the world. I didn’t get to travel very much as a child, and I never left the country until I grew up, but I really love that my kids get to have this wonderful experience of feeling what it’s like to visit cultures around the world.

What trips do you still want to take?

If you said to me right now, “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” I would say New Zealand. I’ve always been curious about it. I hear it’s beautiful and fabulous, and there’s wonderful hiking there. I would love to go to Iceland. All these island places on the periphery of the world, it’s always been intriguing to me. I’ve never been to Italy; that’s high on my list of places I must go. My family and I are going to Greece this summer. We’ve never been there, but we’re going to go to the island of Patmos. There’s hardly anywhere in the world that I wouldn’t want to go, but those are a few topping my list right now.

So New Zealand is overall your dream trip?

Yes, right now. That changes, of course. When I go to New Zealand, somewhere else will be in the front of the line. One of the most fun assignments I had was for Afar magazine. They did this thing called Spin the Globe, where they literally spin the globe and land wherever, and they give you 24 hours’ notice of where you’re going. So last year, I did that, and I went to Andorra. I wasn’t even aware that Andorra was a country. I was like Andorra? Andorra? It’s a tiny, teeny country. I had a blast.

New Zealand (Thinkstock)

What is your best advice for women who want to take a trip to heal themselves?

Remember that we always idealize trips in advance, how wonderful they’re going to be, how glorious they’re going to be. You never imagine the time that you lose your wallet, or your plane is delayed for three days, or you get a terrible sunburn, or your hotel room is horrible, and the people next door keep you awake… any number of travel nightmares that we’ve all gone through. We don’t think of it ahead of time. But my experience is always that misery pays off on a trip. Whenever I’ve been miserable on a trip, where something has gone bad, those are the things that are memorable and contribute to my idea of the trip as a meaningful one. I always tell my kids that. There’s lots of misery in travel. It’s in retrospect that those miserable stories are the ones we tell and laugh about.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

I would say that in my family, the main travel stories we tell are hilariously miserable. This one time in Cambodia, my husband ate at this restaurant, and hours later he was so sick that he pooped his pants. And nothing makes our family laugh harder than him telling that story. Haven’t we all sat around a table and just taken turns telling poop stories from traveling? Those are the ones you remember. My advice would be to just go for it, and know that it’s not always going to be fun and that’s a good thing. If it were only fun, you’d have really boring stories.

What advice do you have for a woman who wants to take a trip alone?

Do it. Don’t listen to people telling you that you shouldn’t or you can’t. I think it’s an incredibly empowering experience to travel alone. And sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it’s lonely, and a lot of times it’s uncomfortable. And that’s true even for me. You do sometimes feel outside of things. But I think that the best things can rise out of that discomfort. Learn how to have fun by yourself, and make your own sense of fun. Obviously you need to be careful and take precautions and be aware of particular vulnerabilities that are real when you’re traveling alone, but I don’t think that’s the story you should listen to the hardest. The story you should listen to the hardest is the one in your own heart that says, “I want to do this. I want to allow myself to be a traveler of the world, and I don’t need a companion to do it.”

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