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The Monsters Inside and Out

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In her memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed is a young woman consumed by grief after her mother’s death and lacks direction in her life which leads her to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Setting out alone, Strayed’s only companion is a backpack fondly called Monster. As an inexperienced hiker, she packs what she thinks she needs, which astonishes fellow hikers that she encounters because she has too much. Her heavy pack inhibits her ability to move forward, just as she returns again and again to the pain of losing her mother and family and divorcing her husband. Strayed’s grief and desperation overwhelms her, turning her into a monster and in carrying the pack, she is able to accept and move on from the weight of her physical and emotional burdens rather than battle against them.

At the beginning of her journey, Strayed fights against Monster, describing the struggle of moving forward without toppling backwards. She describes it as “attempting to lift a Volkswagen Beetle” (Strayed 42). Having no other choice than to carry her tools for survival, Strayed’s body becomes stronger. In turn, she carries a bit less of her pain, distracted by the demands of the hiking conditions and staying on her resupply schedule. At this point, she also resists a bit less against her burden and thinks “these realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm” (92). From this observation, Strayed is alone in the tangled mess that is her life, set apart and volatile to others. In that sense, she is similar to the stereotypical idea of monster derived from classic myths and fiction.

Throughout historical lore and literature, there have been many stories of heroes in combat against monsters: David and Goliath, Victor Frankenstein and the modern Prometheus, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Perseus and Medusa to name a few. From these stories, the line between the hero and the monster is clear; one is young and clever while the latter is deformed and grotesque. The monsters are repulsive to the humans around them, and consequently are alone until the hero fights them. Strayed’s grief isolated her from others; she was self-absorbed and allowed her family dynamics and relationship to fall apart. A definition of “monster” from Merriam-Webster’s is “powerful person or thing that cannot be controlled and that causes many problems.” In her self-destructive acts, Strayed became a monster because she could not resist the lure of heroin and sex with many attractive men she encountered. However, she is not completely immune to these desires while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, especially at the beginning of it.

Many of the definitions of monster from Urban Dictionary connect it with self-indulgence and grotesque behavior. If one consumes too much of a certain pleasure, then they are a monster. Part of what Strayed carries with her is her memories of her vices. For the majority of the trail, she does not indulge in these activities because she has no access to them. Albert, one of the men on the trail, helps her decide what to keep and what to leave behind. One item that she had packed was a roll of a dozen condoms however Albert, a conservative Christian, throws them into the pile of things to leave. Instead of taking them all back, she sneaks just one into her pack. From this restraint, it seems that she is trying to rid herself of her habits that made her into a monster, desperate to feel anything besides the pain of her mother’s death. When done packing, Strayed says, “I was amazed at how light it felt” (107). Bit by bit, she is feeling the release from monstrosity because she is learning what her most important belongings are. She is also learning what parts of her past that she must face and accept, as shown by her frequent use of flashbacks to when she was at her worst.

Strayed has battled against the physical effects of carrying Monster, reminding the reader a few times of the calloused flesh on her hips. About halfway through her trek she realizes that she must work with the pack, not against it, musing, “Monster was my world, my inanimate extra limb…it was my burden to bear…we two were one” (190).  While Monster has become a part of her on this journey, she is no longer the monster she was when she began the hike. The backpack has become easier to carry because she has accepted the memories of her actions after her mother’s death that led to her divorce. Though Strayed has already run away from her problems, she is not in denial.

The first definition of monster in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a mythical creature which is part animal and part human.” Undomesticated animals live in the wild and follow their innate instincts in order to survive. Strayed is hiking in the wild but as her body becomes accommodated to the rough environment, she becomes more civilized in the interactions she has with other humans. Changing from desperate, heartbroken person she was in her flashbacks, she changes from a monster into a better person, one who respects both herself and the people with whom she forms relationships. 

At the end of Strayed’s journey, she mentions that Monster hangs on rusty nails in the depths of her basement. She did not throw it away, signifying that while she is finally free from the negative part of her life pre-PCT but she still holds memories of it. By keeping it tucked away in her basement, she is now in control of herself and her feelings, finally no longer the monster she was at the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Strayed, CherylWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 2012.