In March, I had a four day in-patient hospital stay for severe tonsillitis and, what the doctor called, “sepsis-light”. While recovering at home afterwards I watched the movie “Wild”. It stars Reese Witherspoon as the real-life Cheryl Strayed on her 1000 mile hike across the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as she works through the grief of her mother’s death.
I’d seen the movie when it was released, but not since. At the time, in 2014, with the exception of having gone through the loss of my first baby, Marco, my life was what I would have considered mostly “normal”. I was married, raising a 3 yr old, pregnant with another baby, and navigating the ups and downs that come with starting your own family.
Now, nine years later, in 2023, my life is quite different, and watching Cheryl Strayed’s journey hit me in a much more powerful way than it did all those years ago, as most recently I’ve navigated a divorce.
My divorce brought grief of a different breed. The look and taste of it. The collateral damage it caused. The ensuing free-fall. The mind-bending process of figuring out how to coparent the amazing humans I brought into the world with the same person I was now disentangling from.
When we separated, I’d been with my ex-husband for 20 years, exactly half of my life, which meant there were a colossal amount of mental, emotional, and logistical factors to sort out.
And, while not the death of an actual person, a death still divorce is. Not just the death of a marriage, but also the death of what you thought your family would look like, the hopes and dreams you had for it, and so much more.
Which leads me back to Cheryl Strayed.
As I sat on my couch and watched her journey unfold, this time as a woman who has gone through even more serious life stuff than my first viewing in 2014, I obviously had the thought that I must now also hike the PCT just like Cheryl did.
Except I can’t.
I don’t know about you, but as much as I’d love to check out for three months to fight the elements and myself to reeeeeally work out my traumas, it just isn’t going to happen. My children are here as well as responsibilities that I can’t ignore for that length of time.
So I started thinking…how can I walk the PCT without literally doing it? How can I do something impactful to shake my life up in a healthy way to get closer to my core self and inner peace without hiking from Mexico to Canada?
How can I lean into my Wild.
While it’s undeniable that the actual act of walking that trail largely defined Cheryl Strayed’s journey, it wasn’t the only thing that helped her shift. So I’ve done some dissecting and thinking outside the box on formulating a more local and doable route to self-discovery and healing.
Here’s what I’ve come up with…
How to Embrace your Wild
1. Get Outside
Look, your PCT can be what you want…but in my opinion, you can’t do this without getting outside and into nature. Trees, rocks, dirt, water, animals, they’re everywhere. We need to be around them.
I am just as guilty of this as the rest of us, but we get so used to hopping from the house to the car to the store to the car to work to the car to activities to the car, that we can go days without REALLY being outside if we don’t force it.
Get outside and feel the ground. Do it often…more than before. Feel the rain and the cold and the heat. Allow yourself to be in uncomfortable elements. It’s a metaphor for life, you see. With the exception of San Diego, rarely is it ever always sunny and 70 degrees. No, Mother Nature brings with her many types of weather. Some beautiful, some terrible, and a lot in between. Like life. There is magic and there is tragedy, and there is a lot that falls all over the spectrum between those two. If we can only function well when the scale tips towards magic, the harder it will be when we have to face difficult times.
So get out there and use the power of nature to ground you and to practice sitting in the glory of both comfort and discomfort.
2. Don’t Fight Your Headspace
The narration of the movie was a lot of Cheryl’s own thoughts. What I noticed is that she let her thoughts come and she let them go. She talked to herself and she journaled. And she let it be.
When we don’t let our thoughts go and we hang onto them, it causes stress. The more stress we feel, the more distorted our thoughts can become and the more we believe our own thoughts. It’s a negative reinforcement cycle, and it can be scary and damaging. Trust me, I know. The ironic thing is that if we stop trying to force our thoughts to be one thing vs another, they’ll flow more freely.
We live in “positive thoughts only” culture. But suppressing “negative” thoughts doesn’t work, and it’s not healthy. The positive thoughts will come if you can also sit with the sad, angry, and difficult ones. They can all co-exist and lead to a much healthier thought pattern. Thoughts are what they are. Try to judge them less.
There was a powerful moment in the movie towards the end where, instead of shaming herself for choices she’d made, Cheryl finally decides to see her past actions as things she was supposed to do that all led her on the path she’d walked to get to where she was when she wrote this book.
3. Make Connections
Much of Cheryl’s journey was in solitude. But there were moments of connectedness with others who were walking the same trail. Each person she connected with was on their own journeys along the same larger path. Some took different sub-paths along the way, but there was a solidarity that came with them walking in tandem.
This is all of us, really. We are all mostly walking a journey towards some kind of fulfillment. What that means looks different for so many, but largely, we’re walking parallel paths.
During this human experience we’re all having, take time to connect with others. Whether it’s a wave and hello to a passerby, a hug for a fellow mom outside the pick-up door at school that you haven’t seen in a while, or a conversation with a friend, connection is imperative to our happiness. I strongly believe this, and I know for me it’s been one of the main ways I’ve stayed afloat during some of my darker days.
Connect with people. As if your life depends on it.
4. Reduce Technology Time
(I say as I sit at my laptop and type this)
I know, I know, easier said than done. But try for a minute to think about the near-constant connection we have to technology, and the stress it causes if we don’t keep it in check.
I’m not suggesting anything crazy, but I do think that even small changes can help. Things like reading a physical book, writing on actual paper, or doing one of the other things mentioned above like connecting in-person or going outside.
These things get us out of the technology loop even if just for a short time, and can be grounding.
5. Be Intentional
It takes determination to do any one of these things, let alone all of them. I can’t imagine the focus it took for Cheryl Strayed to take that 3 month, 1000 mile journey. Maybe one day I’ll actually get out there and do it.
But until then, I know I can at least try to be more intentional about my every-day life to make the things I listed above actually happen.
Just like negative reinforcement cycles, there’s a power in positive reinforcement cycles. Intention begets intention. The more you do, the more you know you can do, the more you want to do. Etc etc, and so on and so on.
I’m no Cheryl Strayed, life guru, or Dali Lama. I’m just a woman. A woman who’s gone through some spicy life stuff. A woman who wants to rise through the process of shifting and not be suffocated by it. A woman who constantly has to regularly has to remind herself of how to go about doing this, and who is trying to do it with grace, humor and acceptance. A woman who loves love and believes in love. A woman who wants to teach her daughters how to be the most fierce women.
What would you be working out if you were literally walking the PCT like Cheryl Strayed right now? What would your own version of a local PCT hike look like?