Published September 11, 2014
Author and hiker extraordinaire Cheryl Strayed put one foot in front of the other in Alumni Arena last night, just as she did almost 20 years ago on the infamous Pacific Coast Trail.
Only this time, instead of taking a 1,100-mile, 94-day hike, she walked only a few steps — from the back of the Alumni Arena stage to the front. An enthusiastic audience from, well, all walks of life awaited her arrival at the microphone. Strayed approached the podium to the warm cheer of hundreds attending the first lecture in the university’s 28th Annual Distinguished Speakers Series.
As the applause died, Strayed looked out to the crowd. “Spoiler alert,” she said. “I survived.”
Humor aside, Strayed immediately dove into the larger themes of her speech, structuring her talk around two focal points: her journey as a writer and as a human being.
To portray her journey, Strayed reflected upon her New York Times #1 bestselling memoir, “Wild,” due for release on the big screen later this year staring Academy Award-winner Reese Witherspoon as Strayed.
Wearing an elegant black dress, Strayed delved into her speech, recalling her youth. She explained how she’s had, and always will have, an “unbound love” for her mother.
“My father abandoned our family when I was 6 years old,” she says. “Though, my mother’s love made it OK that I didn’t have a father.” To Strayed, her mother was her world and this became easily recognizable as she moved on to describe not only her college application process, but her mother’s as well.
Indeed, Strayed said the university she had chosen to attend — the University of St. Thomas — stated in its brochure that “Parents could take free classes with the enrollment of a son or daughter.”
At first, Strayed said, she had second thoughts about her mother attending college with her. Like any self-absorbed teenager, Strayed said she found it at first to be “weird and uncomfortable.” But she said she had a realization when she thought about all her mother had sacrificed to provide the best childhood she could for her daughter.
With this in mind Strayed came to a decision. “I wasn’t going to stand in the way of my mother’s opportunity.”
Strayed explained that after the first year at the University of St. Thomas, tuition became too expensive, forcing not only Strayed, but her mother as well, to transfer to their home state university, the University of Minnesota.
Just as everything seemed to be right in the world for Cheryl Strayed, things quickly went downhill during the spring break of her senior year in college. Her mother’s sudden death from a quick bout of cancer thrust Strayed into a state of “self-destruction.” The downward spiral worsened, leading her to a life of heroin, divorce and promiscuity.
“I lost my way,” she said. “There’s just no other way to say it.”
After many months of intense grief and poor choices, Strayed said it was one single book and a realization that not only saved her life, but transformed it as well.
“It was called ‘The Pacific Coast Trail: Volume 1,’” she said. “And I just blossomed. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do this. I have to do this.’”
Needless to say, Strayed embarked on her grueling 1,100 mile hike. She described the solitude she embraced, the people she met and the multitude of hardships she endured.
By the end of her hike, Strayed said she had completely and totally “evolved.” She said she no longer took her mother’s death as a sentiment of grief, but rather as a message to live life. To Strayed, the completion of her hike made her feel as if she had done just that — lived life.
Strayed concluded her tale, noting that she is now a loving mother of two. Her family has read her work and is proud of her, she said, though she couldn’t help but return to her mother one last time.
“Ultimately, I did this, I wrote this, because I wanted my mom back. And now, I feel like I’ve given her to the world,” she said.
After her talk, Strayed fielded questions from the audience. An older man described how he, too, had experienced pain and suffering similar to Strayed’s. He asked: “Cheryl, what do you do now to keep growing as a person?”
In response, Strayed left one tidbit of inspiration. “You learn from your mistakes,” she said. “If you’re open to life, you can’t help but evolve.”