When she divorced, Cheryl Strayed chose for herself an entirely new surname. In Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found, the memoir she wrote and published in 2012 about hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border, she recalls looking up the definition of the word “strayed”, and how its meaning resonated for her. “I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild”, Strayed writes. “Even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—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” (97).
From the outset of her memoir, Strayed links the notion of wildness with movement, suggesting that “becom[ing] wild” only came about for her when she moved away from—and I would suggest here deliberately rejected—a sedentary role in her life. That is, when she became a peripatetic walker: someone “travelling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places for relatively short periods” (Oxford English Dictionary online). In this article, I discuss Strayed’s memoir Wild as an example of radical wandering. I argue that Strayed subverts the figure of the adventuring explorer in nature—who we usually think of as male—by using the idea of “dark peripatetic walking” whereby the dark peripatetic walker transgresses by going against, or existing outside of, society’s norms, walking “perhaps out of life itself” (Adams 196). Strayed walks the PCT out of desperation and grief after her mother dies and her marriage ends. While Paul Adams interprets dark peripatetic walking as a dire act, in this article I offer a reading of this impulse to wander away from as empowering: a radical “return to the self” only made possible by solitude (Barbour 201-202). My reading of Strayed’s walking as dark peripatetic offers a framework for understanding women’s walking in the wild; how, in wandering away from society’s norms, and in seeking solitude and being self-sufficient, the female walker rejects what society expects of women in the wild and finds empowerment in the transgressive act of existing in a male-dominated terrain: in this case, the literal one of the PCT, and the generic one that comprises memoirs about journeys in nature.
Dark Peripatetic Walking as Radical Wandering
A rich history of walking exists throughout the last few centuries, from Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur strolling the streets of Paris, to psychogeography and Guy Debord’s theory of the dérive, to pilgrimages throughout the ages. However, much of this walking was conducted in primarily urban spaces—and flânerie, in particular, excluded women both culturally and linguistically. Dark peripatetic walking is also associated with the urban rather than nature, but I want to take it out into wild landscapes. Adams describes two kinds of walking that Western society practises: “light peripatetic” and “dark peripatetic”. Light peripatetic is associated with solitude, simplicity, and idyll; in short, it connotes a Romantic strolling (193-194). Adams cites the celebrated nature writer Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” as an example of light peripatetic, in which, for Thoreau, walking is an essential, routine part of each day. Dark peripatetic is a more ominous form of walking. Adams writes that “the dark peripatetic motif signals that the bonds of society have been torn, or a character’s identity is beginning to dissolve, or both” (196). The dark peripatetic walker is seen to walk “out of doors, out of society, out of community, out of normal reality, and perhaps even out of life itself” (196). Adams associates dark peripatetic with walking in urban spaces, driven by a sense of leaving, or being forced to leave, society.
Extending Adams’s concept of the dark peripatetic, we might follow the dark peripatetic walker away from an urban setting and into the wilderness. Here we find Strayed. By the time she sets out to embark on the PCT, she has transgressed a number of social norms that have taken her to the edge of society and her existence: she has been unfaithful in her marriage, which has now fallen apart; she regularly takes drugs (though does not consider herself an addict); she is struggling with depression after the death of her mother; she is emotionally isolated as significant relationships with her family and wider networks have collapsed, and she has almost no money and no plans for the immediate future. We can see in Strayed a figure poised at the edge of what could be conceived as the limit of what is bearable. Strayed’s solution is to walk away from her broken life and into solitude and nature.
The impulse of dark peripatetic is away from; the dark peripatetic walker transgresses by going against, or existing outside of society’s norms, walking “perhaps out of life itself” (Adams 196). However, while Strayed’s sense of identity, and her connections with society, have come to feel tenuous, I do not insinuate that she sees hiking the PCT as an act that leads her away from life and into death. While her reasoning for embarking on the hike comes from a place of desperation, it is not a desperate act; while Strayed is unprepared for the rigours of the hike, her inexperience does not equal failure. While Adams interprets dark peripatetic walking as dire, it is possible also to interpret this impulse to walk away from as radical and empowering—particularly for women walking away from societal norms and gendered constrictions that say women should not be, nor want to be, in the wild.
Woman in the Wild
When we think about “wildness”, notions of the unfamiliar are evoked; the uncomfortable, the frightening, and the physically arduous. But wildness can also evoke the empowering. For Thoreau, the word “wild” was “the past participle of to will, self-willed” (cited in Turner 111). Carol Black elaborates on this idea, describing Thoreau’s wild as “that which lives out of its own intrinsic nature rather than bowing to some extrinsic force” (Black). Understood like this, to be wild is ultimately to embody your intrinsic essence. Of course, the discussion of an “intrinsic essence”, or, implicitly, one of a woman’s, is complicated territory: as the feminist scholar Donna Haraway writes, “there is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices” (155). There is a long association between women and nature as the ecofeminist scholar Carolyn Merchant discusses in her important book The Death of Nature, with both being dominated by science and men, and both being conflated as the “nurturing mother” (xx). The association between men and nature, however, is interestingly fluid, as the ecocritic Astrid Bracke points out: “‘male’ can be seen as both culture, and nature: culture, when ‘wild’, ‘natural’ women have to be civilized, nature when it comes to drawing a contrast to the domestic sphere of the home, the place of women and children” (“Macho Nature”). The discussion of the essence of a human being is complex and potentially fraught, and would require another article to do it justice, so what I want to focus on here is the idea of wildness as being, or returning to, a sense of selfhood that may have been forgotten. I focus here on how Strayed experiences self and wildness through the act of walking in solitude, and what this means for narratives of being in the wild.
The ability to inhabit, explore freely, and stake claims on wild places has often been the business of men in history and male characters in literature. For instance, Tanya Kam argues that women who hike alone are more likely to be asked what compelled them to do so, whereas this legitimisation is not required when a man does the same thing (365). She suggests that adventures in the wild are often perceived in Western society as a “rite of masculinity” (365) where the male explorer sets out to conquer “rugged, natural terrain” (353). For Kam, this stems from the concept of “frontier masculinity”, which, she writes, “depends on romanticised conceptions of the wilderness, rugged self-sufficiency, courage, masculine physical strength, autonomous individualism, and the active subordination of nature” (353). This masculine explorer trope impedes the fact that women have always been present in nature and wilderness. Sarah McFarland calls for “the reconstruction of the concept of nature itself” (45), which she argues women’s nature writing can bring about, in a way that will “integrat[e] the interests of actual women into an actual wilderness” (45). Memoirs such as Tracks (1980) by Robyn Davidson, Woman in the Wilderness (2018) by Miriam Lancewood, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube (2016) by Blair Braverman, and even The Word for Woman Is Wilderness by Abi Andrews (2018), which is not a memoir but a novel that reads like one, are a suite of texts that I think would interest McFarland, who proposes that by disrupting the notion of the solitary male “questing hero” (37), women-authored texts about being in nature refute “the myth of a womanless wilderness” (38). Strayed, with Wild, joins the lineage of women writers who do this.
One strategy that Strayed uses to refute this myth, and provide an alternative to the male explorer, is to embody some of the tropes of this figure in her narration of hiking the PCT. The criteria by which Kam defines this masculine explorer are evident, in most instances, in Strayed’s narrator in Wild. During the three months that she spends hiking the PCT, she is forced to become self-sufficient; she finds courage in the face of extreme hardship; her physical strength develops, and she becomes comfortable in her autonomy. Strayed consistently highlights the gender of her body in this narration: her overweight pack “Monster” is a constant struggle for her smaller physique; she pushes herself physically so male hikers don’t overtake her; she lists the condoms and natural sea sponge she packs, anticipating occasions of physical intimacy and attending to the practicality of menstruating while on the trail. She notes, as the weeks pass, the way her hair grows straw-like from exposure to the weather, and how the developing muscles in her legs “rippl[e] beneath [her] thinning flesh in ways they never had” (190). Patches of skin on her hips and tailbone bleed and scab over from her pack chafing (190). Strayed’s walking, and how she foregrounds the femininity of her body, disrupts the idea that the wilderness is not a place for a woman’s body.
However, it is important that the narrator does not seek to subordinate nature—a key aspect of Kam’s “frontier masculinity”. Embodying some, but not all, of the masculine explorer’s traits, as a female narrator-protagonist, Strayed engages with, but ultimately resists, conforming to this tradition, subverting the dominant picture of the masculine explorer in wild places. This is not to say that Strayed refrains from engaging in adversarial encounters with nature; she feels triumphant after successfully navigating snow-covered parts of the trail, and loudly blows her whistle to scare away wildlife. Strayed’s gender is key here: with this strategy, Strayed claims her place as a woman in masculine territory, but in doing so she is more concerned with reflecting on her inner life than in asserting herself over the land that she traverses. In a statement against patriarchal and colonial conceptions of “the wilderness” as empty space to be claimed (via literally claiming land, or by inscribing a romantic narrative upon it), Strayed finds her place in the landscape without owning it. She writes about being in nature, but is ultimately more occupied with being in herself.
Witnessing the Self
If the need to assert himself over nature drives the male adventurer, as Kam suggests, we might read in Wild’s female adventurer an antithesis to this impulse: the act of witness. In a moment of revelation, the narrator realises what it is that drove her, and others before her, to hike the PCT:
It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. (207)
Strayed’s language choices are significant here. In walking through the landscape features that she names in the above passage, she is witnessing place. Witnessing connotes viewing, but not acting upon. We might also surmise, however, that she is witnessing herself located in these places. Strayed uses the phrase “how it felt to be” to describe the essence of her experience in the wild—again, “felt” could refer to tactile experience in the landscape, or a sense of wildness in her identity that manifested through being in that landscape.
On the trail, Strayed also discovers that she is comfortable alone. In a passage that is deceptively short, Strayed makes a remarkable comment on solitude as a transgressive and transformative state for a woman to seek out and ultimately feel at home in:
Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before. (119, emphasis mine)
There are two important points in this passage: the first is that Strayed feels most herself when she is alone, and the second that her understanding of aloneness has shifted. Reading Strayed’s walking as dark peripatetic allows us to see the act of walking as a radical “return to the self”. John Barbour, from whom I have borrowed this phrase, explains that “solitude … is not oriented toward escaping the world, but toward a different kind of participation in it, as made possible by the disengagement from ordinary social interactions. Solitude is a return to the self” (201-202). Kam discusses how Barbour’s “return to the self” (201-202) occurs when the subject is freed from the various social and domestic responsibilities by which they would normally be bound. She speculates that isolation, or solitude, is generally discouraged in the individual as it endangers the functionality of society. This criticism seems particularly relevant in relation to women, as it highlights their roles as home-makers in a patriarchal society. Hiking alone, Strayed finds that her participation in the world has changed—and it is through her solitary experience that this occurs. There is a safety, a self-containment, in Strayed’s solitude—which counters the narrative that for women, in particular, the wilderness contains danger and threat. As Kam points out, it is not wild animals that present the greatest threat to Strayed; it is a pair of male hunters who encounter her campsite on one occasion (Kam 363).
Claiming autonomy and seeking out solitude, as Strayed does in Wild, suggests an experience of wildness that resonates with Thoreau’s understanding of it as “self-willedness” (Turner 111). After reading Wild, the phrase “radical self-containment” seems to me to describe the phenomenon of the particular kind of wildness enabled by walking; the autonomy found in solitude; and in existing beyond the reach of extrinsic forces that would normally affect one’s life. In this experience of wildness, walking, the natural world, and solitude are entwined and essential to the other: wildness is both an embodied and internal experience.
Wild asks us to think about what we make of women venturing into the wild, and the role that walking plays in this. Reading Strayed’s walking in Wild as dark peripatetic suggests a framework for understanding women’s walking in the wild; how, in seeking and discovering that she is at home in solitude, the female walker rejects what society expects of women. Women are not, culturally speaking, encouraged to seek out either solitude or wild places. As nature writing has historically suggested, wild terrain is male terrain. Strayed subverts the figure of the adventuring explorer in nature with her walking by foregrounding the lived experiences of her female body, rejecting society’s role for her, and finding that she is at home in solitude. But most importantly, she does so by shifting the gaze of the walker that we encounter in much male-authored nature literature: rather than looking outward with the intention of conquering, dominating, or claiming landscape, she looks inwards, witnessing the changes in self that walking in remote, wild landscapes enables, and in doing so, gives us another narrative for contemporary journeys in the wild.
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