Wednesday, January 18, 2017

OSU Crowd Goes 'Wild' Over Cheryl Strayed

Photo courtesy of Karl Maasdam Photography

CORVALLIS -- Oregonians love Cheryl Strayed. Even some of the snotty, elite backpacker society who have hated on her best-selling book “Wild” since its release two years ago.

Readers’ adoration of Strayed was on full display last Thursday from the moment she sheepishly popped on stage from behind the curtain midway through the introduction at OSU’s LaSells Stewart Center.

An hour before her talk, the overflow crowd filled every spot in the 1,200-seat auditorium, with hundreds of others left to stand in the aisles or sit on the floor. Sadly, those who hadn’t hustled to find a seat had to retreat to the lobby, where hundreds more watched the hour-long talk by live stream.

Karl Maasdam Photography
Strayed’s upbeat speech ranged from grueling tales along the Pacific Crest Trail and her transformational journey from near self-destruction, to funny moments behind the scenes with Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who’ve both been nominated for Academy Awards for their roles in the movie version of “Wild.”

Mostly, however, Strayed fondly remembered her mom, the most “essential” person in her life. It was her mom’s death that precipitated the downward spiral that eventually led Strayed to hike 1,100 miles of the epic and challenging Pacific Crest Trail, otherwise known as the PCT.
Strayed’s story was familiar to most of the Oregon State University crowd, about three-quarters female, who nearly unanimously indicated they had read “Wild,” seen the movie or done both. In her talk, Strayed recounted elements of the story, eliciting both laughter and near tears, sometimes in the same anecdote.

“It really is about my mom, and her life … and what her death meant to me.”

For example, Strayed shared her own college experience and the naïve manner in which she decided to attend the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. After looking at various brochures, she settled on St. Thomas largely because the people pictured in the pamphlet seemed the “least weird-looking.”

Upon being accepted by the only college to which she applied, she learned that parents and grandparents also could attend classes … for free. Her mom took that opportunity to get the college education she always wanted.

“It was every student’s dream,” Strayed joked. “Would any of you bring your mom to school?!”

Going to college together, however, strengthened the already-impenetrable bond Strayed had with her mom after growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father and living “off the grid” in northern Minnesota. Her mom was her best friend, her confidante, her inspiration.

But on campus, Strayed said, her mom wasn’t to acknowledge her unless Cheryl spoke first. Of course, that embarrassment quickly disappeared. Her mom was a straight-A student, hungry to learn, and redefining her own life.

At the same time, Strayed said, “My mom knew where I had to be at that point in my life. Suddenly I understood who I was, like I never had before.”

So it was that senior year spring break that their lives took a terrible turn, when her mother, 45, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Seven weeks later, she was gone.

Karl Maasdam Photography
Her mother’s death catapulted Strayed, then 22, into binges of alcohol and drug abuse, wanton sex, and “violent, tyrannical” behavior that destroyed her first marriage.

“In my sorrow, I lost my way.”

Four years after her mom died, purely by chance she saw a guidebook for the PCT. And amidst her heartbreak she threw herself relentlessly into her spiritual quest for redemption and renewal.

Strayed said she couldn’t honor her mom by “wrecking” her own life. Full of regret, she needed to start doing the right thing.

She recalled a short scene at the outset of the movie that takes up only a few pages of the book. And yet, it sums up her quest.

She is standing in a hotel room the morning her hike is to begin. All her gear is laid out on the bed. She had never packed a backpack in her life. After she squeezes everything into the enormous bundle she realizes it’s too big.

She can’t budge it.

“What was I thinking?!”

It was upon reflection years later that the moment’s deeper meaning became apparent, she said. “I learned what it means when we have to bear what is unbearable.”

And go on, one step after another.

“You can only figure out how to bear it yourself.”

At one point of the trail her feet were blistered and bloody.

“My feet hurt so bad that I forget about my heart.”

Alone, sometimes scared, often frustrated and exhausted, she persisted. To the end of her journey, at the Bridge of the Gods, which connects Oregon and Washington over the Columbia River.

It almost seems trite, she said, to start life anew at the Bridge of the Gods. No editor would allow her to make that up.

Yet that’s where her trek concluded in 1995, and her new journey began. One that she’s sure would make her mom proud.

Strayed began writing “Wild” in 2008, “when I could really tell what happened.” By then she had already published her novel, “Torch,” was remarried and had two small children.

She’s been overwhelmed by the success of “Wild,” the movie and the hundreds of emails and letters from appreciative readers. Their kind words far outnumber the caustic reviews from those who have criticized her hike along only part of the 2,600-mile PCT.

They’re critical because she didn’t do the whole trail, she didn’t know what she was doing or even what to pack. And the notoriety of “Wild” will attract all manner of people to the trail, spoiling it for hikers.

They miss the point, she said. It’s not a book about backpacking. It’s about conquering heartbreak and starting over.

People ask her, “What would you say to your mother now?” Strayed said she used to tell people she’d say what you’d expect, “I love you, mom” or “I miss you.”

In the movie, her mom is played by Laura Dern. In real life, her mom wasn’t much taller than five feet. Strayed described Dern as beautiful, tall, willowy.

If she met up with her mom now, Strayed said, she would flatter her by saying, “Laura Dern is playing you in a fucking movie!”

One of the key moments from the film is when Dern’s character, stricken with cancer, says, “I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life. I was always a daughter, or a wife, or a mother …”
Strayed smiled as she described her own cameo in the movie. It happens near the start. She is driving the pickup that drops Reese Witherspoon, aka Cheryl, off at the hotel in Mojave, Calif., the night before her hike.

Months later, Strayed said, the irony dawned on her: “In the movie of my life, I got to be in the driver’s seat.”

At a glance:

Portland writer Cheryl Strayed, best-selling author of “Wild,” spoke Jan. 15 at OSU in Corvallis.

Her talk was part of the annual Discovery Lecture Series, which brings prominent scientists, writers and policymakers to campus. Next up is Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News chief health and medical editor, on April 13.

In addition to “Wild,” Strayed has written articles for the New York Times, Washington Post and other publications, a novel, “Torch,” and she was the advice columnist behind “Dear Sugar,” a blog on the
The movie “Wild,” now in theaters, stars Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who have been nominated for Academy Awards as best actress and best supporting actress.

For more information, see

Strayed generated the loudest laugh of the evening when she described getting a bit of acting advice from Witherspoon leading up to her cameo in the film.

Strayed only needed to say two words, “Good luck,” as Witherspoon climbs out of a pickup to gather up her hiking gear. The scene was one of the last ones filmed for the movie, and Strayed said she started to panic as the moment approached. “It turns out there’s a thousand ways to say, ‘Good luck.’”

So she turns to Witherspoon, who she describes as the most lovely, nurturing, supportive person on the movie crew.

And Reese responds, “Cheryl, just don’t fuck it up!”


1 comment:

Janet Smart said...

You captivated my attention right from the start. I had no idea who the author was, yet I found myself reading your entire blog. I now feel the need to go check out Wild. Great post! It sounded like a very successful time at OSU.