Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed Joni kabana

The long walk back from self-destructive promiscuity

I'M NOT afraid. I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid."

For many of us, admitting we're afraid is hard - sometimes too hard. But for American writer Cheryl Strayed, those three little words helped her conquer her fears and take back her life.

She was 22 when her world fell apart. Her mother had died suddenly of cancer when she was a college senior. She had a stepfather, a brother and sister, but their close relationship dissolved soon after.

"I was just growing up myself - you know I was a grown up, but I wasn't really," Strayed recalls.

"So I sort of spiralled down the way that we do when we're deeply suffering and I began using drugs and I was promiscuous in ways that were destructive to me."

Four years later, reeling from a divorce and dangerously dabbling on the edge of drug addiction, Strayed needed to find a way back to her life, her dreams and ambitions. And being alone in the wilderness could help her clear that fog.

At 26 Strayed embarked on a solo expedition of the Pacific Crest Trail, a long-distance hiking trail closely aligned with the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges that lie east of the US Pacific coast. All her belongings on her back. No radio, no phone and little money.

By 1995, one year later, Strayed had hiked 1700km in 94 days. For the first eight days, she didn't cross paths with a single human being.

"I decided before my hike that I had to tell myself that I wasn't afraid," she says.

"Of course everyone is afraid of things like this. It sounds scary to be alone in the wilderness in a tent and there are many narratives in our minds about why we should be afraid of something and many of them are false.

"We're in much more danger driving around in a car than we are out walking alone in the wilderness and many of us fear one and not the other.

"It's complicated to say I wasn't afraid - but I didn't allow myself to be.

"The fear starts to fall away and you replace it with something else. After a while, I felt completely at ease and comfortable. I was by myself, walking by myself and sleeping in a tent by myself and it felt great."

Strayed shared her journey of self-discovery in her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2012, landing her on The New York Times bestseller list.

The book, which featured in Oprah's Book Club 2.0, was made into a film in 2014 staring Reese Witherspoon, for which she was nominated for an Oscar.

Strayed grew up in northern Minnesota and was accustomed to living rustically. The family home didn't get indoor plumbing installed until she went away to college.

She had been trekking before, but only on day hikes. But her experience didn't stop her from making a novice backpacker mistake. She packed too much stuff. Her backpack, nicknamed Monster, weighed more than 30 kilograms at its heaviest.

"I'd been on day hikes where you're carrying a little pack and by the end of the day you're home and happy in the bathtub. I'd never gone backpacking and it was hard to do," she says.

"I immediately suffered lots of foot ailments and blisters, all kinds of chafing where the pack made contact with my body."

In a poignant scene in the film Witherspoon, her feet raw with blisters, loses her big toenail because her boots were too small. In real life, Strayed lost six nails. The experience was testing but transforming.

"The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer - and yet also, like most things, so very simple - was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay," she wrote.

"As I clung to the chaparral, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.

"I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn't have known before."

Since Wild, Strayed has penned another bestseller, Tiny Beautiful Things, which included a collection of her popular advice column, Dear Sugar, which she wrote anonymously until 2012, when she revealed her identity.

She doesn't write the column any more, but hosts a podcast on Boston Radio called Dear Sugar Radio, where she offers others advice.

"Quotes are really powerful, they are just those kind of mantras that we can say to ourselves - and sometimes they're by other people," Strayed says.

It was out of a love for positive affirmations that her other book, Brave Enough, a collection of quotes, was born.

"So many people tweet me and send me emails and quoting from my books. Some had tattoos on their body from (my) books - Tiny Beautiful Things and Wild and some even from Torched, my first book," she says. "People were handing me back my quotes, which I thought was astounding.

"They're essentially reminders to be strong, sometimes it's to console us. Your heart might be broken now, but it won't always be this way.

"For myself when I was hiking, I would say to myself over and over again 'I'm not afraid'. And it wasn't long before I wasn't.''


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