This weekend, Cheryl Strayed is coming to the Chicago Travel and Adventure Show in Rosemont to speak about her best-selling memoir, Wild, now a film starring Golden Globe nominee Reese Witherspoon (Strayed speaks on January 17 at 12:15 p.m.). Chicago got on the phone to talk with Strayed about her experience and to get her travel tips for others seeking their own wild adventure.
You’re headed to Chicago’s Travel & Adventure Show this weekend. What will you be talking about?
I’ll be talking about my Wild journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, but I think in a larger context about the power and importance of travel in my life. Whether it be flying to a foreign country or traveling on foot in the wilderness by backpacking, I love talking about what travel can do to us and the journeys that feed our soul. One of the things that I hit on a lot in Wild is how much we can learn about ourselves and the way we can find our strength through stepping outside of the comfort zone. There’s probably no better way to do that than through travel.
And truly having an adventure. It seems like the real adventure comes when it’s not always planned.
Absolutely. One of the things I like to remind people—and this completely applies across the board, whether it be a backpacking trip or flying to France and traveling for a month—is that before you go on a trip, you are idealizing it. You are thinking of all the fun things you are going to do. What you don’t think about are the times when the train is delayed and you’re trapped on it for three hours, the hotel that ends up being horrid, your bags getting lost, or, in my case with hiking, the blisters, and how much pain and discomfort I experienced. At that moment, you’re miserable and thinking, Why did I do this? This was a big mistake. But what always ends up happening is that those are the best stories. I really say just embrace the difficult times of your trip because those are going to often be the times you remember with the most laughter. Very seldom do we remember when we were on the beach and it was so beautiful. We do remember those things, too, but there’s something about the hard times. They’re challenging to us and they ask us to think outside the box.
How do you turn that into advice?
What I say, especially with hikers, is that don’t expect that it’s always going to be fun. Don’t expect that you’re not going to sometimes spend the entire day thinking, jeez, maybe I should abandon this trip. Part of travel is experiencing homesickness and dealing with loneliness. Last year I travelled to Andorra by myself to write an essay, and it was just me alone in a hotel. I could do whatever I wanted for a few days. I went out to dinner one night and I was sitting there looking around at all the people around me in this restaurant who were with friends, family, and lovers. I was just like oh, I’m alone. There was a part of that that was fun and part of it was like ack, I wish someone was here with me. Embrace the parts that don’t seem enjoyable or pleasurable. And not only embrace them, but go in knowing that they are going to be part of the journey that you kind of welcome. I mean, we always idealize travel, don’t we? We never think of the times when the whole family is fighting in the car. But you have to have both things.
You said that you felt changed after being on the trail after your first eight days. Do you believe others can find that same sense of change in just a week or even a weekend?
Of course. Obviously that sense of change deepens profoundly over time. I think everyone does deserve at least one time in their life when they take a longer journey because it does have its own accumulative power. But absolutely, I can get away for a day and feel like ok, that was great, I needed that. Even the small journeys, like deciding to take a walk by yourself, can be incredibly restorative.
What do you look for when you travel?
Basically, my two favorite things to do when I travel are to find hiking trails and places to take good walks. Good walks that allow you to make a big loop in the course of the day, and return to your hotel or wherever you’re staying. I love that kind of wandering. There’s something about traveling by foot that allows you to see, whether it be the natural world if you’re in the wilderness but also even urban environments. One of the things I’ve found is that there’s almost always a trail nearby, in so many cities, cities that you think of as incredibly urban. I’m sure in Chicago, right? You guys walk along Lake Michigan, isn’t there a wonderful kind of pedestrian way?
Your hike on the PCT is kind of like the ultimate unplugged adventure. Back in 1995, there were no cell phones, no social media, and most people didn’t have a clue about email. And you took it further by diving into the wilderness by yourself for 94 days. Today, we are making progress if we can simply get away and ignore email for a week. When you hike or travel now, do you insist on keeping this kind of “noise” to a minimum? How do you make that happen?
The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. I love that when I’m traveling that I can stay quickly connected with my family and I can do a lot of stuff as I go, and for all the reasons we all love the Internet, right. But it’s also a problem because you’re never really alone anymore unless you turn off that portal to the whole rest of the world. I do think that we’re too connected; I’m too dependent on it. When I’m hiking and walking, I do consciously try to leave my phone back at home, though I don’t do it as much as I should. I don’t really think phones make us safer in the wilderness. It’s not as if the numbers of people who have died on hiking trails has vastly declined since the invention of the cell phone. If anything it’s made us sort of foolhardy because we think, well we can always call someone, and we can’t always call someone. I do think disconnecting is important. I’m really glad I had that kind of silence and solitude out there. If I’d had a phone on the PCT, it would have been completely different. For one thing, [it would have been a] distraction. When I had those uncomfortable moments of being lonely or bored or whatever negative feelings I was having, I would have thought, here, I’ll just loose myself in the Internet. But you have to stay with your own thoughts. That’s the way solitude works: It’s about facing the inner self—the ugly, the beautiful, the complicated.
What are some of your favorite hikes or destinations of the moment?
I love Chamonix, French, in the French Alps near Mont Blanc. It’s just this beautiful little town and it’s absolutely surrounded by hiking trails in every direction. Literally hiking trails that come up to the edge of town and I loved hiking there. I also love hiking in the place I just described to you, in my beloved home state of Oregon, all over Mount Hood, the Mount Hood National Forest area (which is just east of Portland) and also the Columbia River Gorge. The Oregon rainforest is very, very green and lush, and magical. It’s almost like these forests are out of a fairy tale. I also went to Andorra in the Pyrenees, which is just this teeny, teeny, tiny little country wedged between France and Spain. I hiked on the Coma Pedrosa, which is the highest mountain in Andorra, and on several trails there, and was just gobsmacked by the beauty.
What travel experiences are on your bucket list?
If you could send me anywhere right now, I would choose New Zealand. I was in the Blue Mountains of Australia a couple years ago and just wowed by it. And so close to New Zealand and I couldn't get there, so my awareness was just heightened. I’m also curious about Iceland.
You shared with New York Magazine that the No. 1 thing people come up to you and say is that they are “inspired by your book.” For those moved to do something big but not sure where to start, what’s the one thing you would tell them?
One of the most powerful things about being inspired by something or someone else is that it propels that new feeling in you, that you, too, want to do something like that. But then what I think you need to do is to let go of the person who inspired you and create your own journey. I love it that so many people are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail because of my book—it’s totally flattering and wonderful. But I also think it’s really important to say, “Well, you’re inspired by my hike, but maybe it’s not the PCT you want to do.” So what does it mean or look like in your life? In one of my favorite emails that I ever got, this woman was saying, “I’m never going to hike the PCT and I’m not really a hiker, but I was inspired by your book. And what I decided to do was to take a walk most days of the week for an hour by myself just in my city. I was always too afraid to go walking by myself. It felt weird and like I shouldn’t do that.” But she did and it’s part of her life now, and it’s changed her life. And I just think that’s the coolest thing.