Kathryn Schulz profiles Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild (recently made into a motion picture, seen above), which recounts her experience living alone in the woods for three months. Schulz connects Strayed to a tradition of religious pilgrimage – “the Muslim walking to Mecca, the Buddhist to Bodh Gaya, the Hindu to Puri, the Catholic to Lourdes”:
Religious pilgrims walk outdoors, but their fundamental journey is inward, undertaken to improve the state of their soul. So, too, with Strayed. The subtitle of Bill Bryson’s book is Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. The subtitle of hers is From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Like Dante, then, Strayed is on a spiritual journey, beginning in damnation, bound for deliverance. That makes Wild a redemption narrative — and that, in turn, helps explain its popularity, because redemption narratives are some of the oldest, most compelling, and most ubiquitous stories we have. We enshrine nature writing in the canon — you were probably assigned Thoreau and Emerson et al. in high school — but it is redemption narratives that dominate our culture. Among other things, you can hear them in religious services all across the land and in AA meetings every day of the week.
Wild embodies this ancient story. Or, more precisely, it embodies the contemporary American version thereof, where the course is not from sin to salvation but from trauma to transformation: I was abject, dysfunctional, and emotionally shattered, but now I see. This version has more train-wreck allure than the traditional one (being a mess is generally more spectacular than merely being an unbeliever), and it is also more inclusive. Identifying with it requires no particular faith, beyond the faith that a bad life can get better.