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A Long Level Gaze

When I was 21 I saw the movie Henry and June in Minneapolis and was so affected by it I walked straight from the theater to a bookstore, where I purchased every book written by Anaïs Nin they had in stock. And so began my years-long obsession with Nin's diaries. She published volumes and volumes of them, each written in her dreamy yet precise style. I lost myself in her world, and found myself too. She was born 65 years before me, but that didn't matter. I knew what she was saying about art and love and sex, about jealousy and shame, about longing and doubt.

Like Nin, I was a prodigious journal-keeper during those years. My days poured onto the page, vividly described scenes of my life unspooling like fiction for three, five, ten pages at a time, my emotions exhaustively expressed and explored. I lamented and raged. I reasoned and begged. I reported and reached to find an explanation for the parts of me that I couldn't explain. Wherever I was, my journal was nearby. I carried a succession of them around in my bag for years.

So of course I carried a journal with me on my 1,100-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. By the time I took my hike, I had a very clear idea of what my journal was: an 8-by-12 inch sketchbook with thick, unlined archival paper and a stern black hardback binding. Nothing else would do. It was not exactly the lightest thing to take on a wilderness trek during which I was meant to be concerned with pack weight — in fact, I'm rather sure it was exactly the heaviest thing — but it meant a lot to me, so I took it anyway. A fresh one for my journey.

My first entry was made while sitting on the airplane as I flew to Los Angeles from Portland to begin my hike. Out on the trail, the voice I got to hear in my journal in the deep solitude of that summer was often the only one I heard for days — a consolation, even if that voice was nothing more than my own echo.

Years later, my journal turned out to be an important resource when I wrote Wild. I didn't record everything that happened in its pages — to write the book I also drew hugely from my memory — but what I did record informed every page of Wild. My journal provided the who, what, how, when, and why with a specificity that memory might have blurred, but it also did something more: it offered me a frank and unvarnished portrait of myself at 26 that I couldn't have found anywhere else.

I wrote letters to friends and family from the PCT, but I didn't even attempt to gather them and mine them for information as I wrote Wild. I didn't because I sensed on a gut level that they'd be of little use to me. In my letters, I'd been trying to make an impression. I wanted to seem strong or funny or impressive, to offer evidence that I was now more together than the sort-of-falling-apart woman many of them thought I was before I set out on my hike. I wanted to seem transformed and heroic to those I wrote to. I know without reading them, my letters were hyperbolic and embellished, covertly self-aggrandizing and embarrassingly philosophical.

But my journal is none of these things. In it, I told myself the truth. Every last inch of whatever the truth might be. I didn't attempt to cast anything in either a better or worse light. On those pages not meant for anyone's eyes but my own I did what every memoirist must do years before I knew I'd ever become a memoirist: I gave myself a long level gaze. It was from that place I set about writing Wild.

÷ ÷ ÷

Cheryl Strayed is the author of the memoir Wild and the novel Torch. Her third book, Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of the "Dear Sugar" columns she writes for TheRumpus.net, will be released in July. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Wild: From Lost to Found on the...
    Used Hardcover $9.95

Cheryl Strayed is the author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

4 Responses to "A Long Level Gaze"

    nicole March 21st, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Every backpacking trip I've gone on (except the first one, when I was 14) I've taken a journal ... What I write 'out there' differs from 'in civilization' a bit, but also I loved to record the happenings of the day, where we camped that night, how close the stars were so that I could read and remember later. And now I am grateful I did so - that little peek into who I was when I wrote those words, as well as the impressions of the backcountry, are precious. I haven't written much in a paper journal in far too long, and was thinking lately that I would like to get back to it. Thanks for the reminder/impetus.

    Tim April 6th, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    At age 62, it seems a little late to start a journal, but nonetheless I have started to do so. It's just one of many ways I was inspired by "Wild" and the courage and spirit the book embodied. I have to wonder if the notion many readers of the book must have regarding hiking the PCT will for me continue to grow.

    Michael Dawson August 16th, 2012 at 10:14 am


    What a boring navel gazer you are. And your writing is the same. Get over yourself.

    Shecky March 31st, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Michael Dawson, what a tedious commenter you are. Cheryl Strayed is a wise, compassionate person whose "navel gazing" is interesting and inspiring to readers. That's why she's able to make a living with her writing, while you are only able to make bitter, useless comments on it. Get over yourself.

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