Well over a year ago - it might have been in 2010 - my dear friend Catherine introduced me to Dear Sugar, an advice column on The Rumpus, by sending me a column of hers that was about writing, as I recall. It might have been a different column, one just about life, but when I try to think about how I read her work for the first time, all I can remember is a day and night of clicking the back button and then clicking on the next column on the list, devouring them all in a tiny enlightened space. There was so much beauty, so much wisdom, so much life in her columns, and most of what she said shot straight to my heart. Her columns touched various parts of me, inspired me in many different ways. But I loved her completely, the pure and drooling and nameless love that a reader feels for a writer when those words click into an empty part of you.
I couldn't bear not to know Sugar's real identity, so I looked it up. I'd never heard of Cheryl Strayed. I didn't read her first novel; I read a chapter of it, and it was so intensely written that I was pretty sure I couldn't get all the way through it. Catherine did get all the way through it and she told me that yeah, it was like that the whole way, and wasn't easy to read, unfortunately. But I knew from her column that a second book of hers was soon to be released.
That book was Wild, which you may already know about. It's a memoir of the summer Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and I knew that it was going to be big-hearted and glorious and filled with a kind of truth that was downright holy, but I had no idea it would make the kind of splash it's been making. Which is to say: Oprah has restarted her book club just to get Wild into as many readers' hands as possible.
Of course I knew I had to read Wild. This writer changed my life. This was apparently the book of her career. I knew that something incredible waited between its covers. But I also knew that it was in hardback, which meant it would be expensive and annoying to read. And I knew that since it was selling so well, it probably wouldn't be into paperback for more than a year.
So I waited and waited and heard about Wild and how amazing it was from every possible source, feeling that lame hipster burn. Because I could have told them all exactly how amazing Strayed was, since I knew about her a long time ago (sniff, hair toss).
Two days ago I was at a Barnes & Noble in Bozeman, Montana, and I'd had enough. I broke down and bought the hardback. And yesterday, I sat outside on the porch of my friend's little house near Whitehall and I read about a hundred pages of it, adding on to the 50 I'd read before bed the previous night. While I read about Strayed connecting to the spread of nature in California, I listened to the birds and felt the breeze, I watched as my friend's father dug in the earth, and I looked around at the trees and the sun and the mountains. I felt the same thing I've been feeling ever since I drove into this state, leaving the dull farmscapes of Idaho and driving straight into the most take-no-prisoners humbling experience of my thirty years and ten months. I felt here. I felt alive. I felt real.
Now I'm not sorry I waited so many months before I bought Wild. I'm not sorry that the indie bookstore in Hollywood where I saw Strayed had sold out of it. As I read about her sensation of being the only person in the world, alone with the landscape and its power and its inevitability, I looked at the sun in the big sky of Montana and I felt her sitting there with me, telling me her story, woman to woman.
I wrote this post last night outside on my friend's porch, getting eaten by mosquitoes, listening to the evening and looking at the fading palette of the sunset. The sprinklers were going, water splatting against the tarp stapled over the greenhouse. As I wrote, the sprinklers shut down for the night, and from then on, there was only utter silence.