Recently, cinemas have been showing the film version of a book called ‘The Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed. The film featured Renee Zellweger but appeared to not make much of a scene on the cinematic critic’s eyes, so much so that it never even screened at any of my local cinemas so was unable to see it. However I did read the book, a few months before it was made into a film and enjoyed it immensely. It is the true story of Cheryl Strayed, originally Nyland, who changed her name in commemoration of her life-changing trek along the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail. Her story is a sad one, having lost her mother, drifting away from her husband and falling into the arms of the wrong man, leading her down the path of drugs, Cheryl decided to travel, by foot, to see what she would find and learn. As the book title suggests ‘A journey from Lost to Found’, travel saved Cheryl Strayed. It enabled her to be humbled by the world, honoured by the kindness of strangers and, being so distanced from her previous life in Minnesota, she was able to see what really was important, and the hike enabled her to start her life afresh when she returned.
Cheryl’s view on her hike is this :
“It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.
It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with 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.”
So, to relate it to my question ‘Why do people travel’, for Cheryl it was about getting back to basics and feeling at home. She was able to find out who she really was and what she was capable of doing when her body was pushed to the maximum. Through the hike she endured 50 degree heat with no water, thick snow on the Sierra Nevada, trekking for days without shoes as one fell off a mountain when she was hundreds of miles away from the next point of civilisation and extreme, harsh conditions. However the one constant for Cheryl throughout her hike was the support and kindness of complete strangers, of the many people she met on her journey, only once did she encounter danger by two men in a truck. I think this may be something worth noting about travelling, when at home we see so much negativity around the world, so much pain and destruction, through the media and news, through friends turning bad, snide comments and resentment. But when travelling, there is little of this, the temporary nature of travelling naturally means that the point at which relationships are able to turn negative are eradicated. You can have a best friend that you see every day but after a week they drive you mad, but you have to live with it. But when travelling, if you are only in a place for a few days, there is no time for bad vibes to form between people. On the face of it, this is good, because it enables someone to remain happy, but when you think deeper – isn’t that just selfish? You are running away from everyone and everything purely to escape negativity, isn’t that rude? And ignorant? Yes, good things exist in the world, but so do bad things, and as the song goes ‘gotta be cruel to be kind’. You shouldn’t travel just to run away from ‘bad things’, UNLESS, it is temporary. In Cheryl’s case, her journey lasted only three months. Strayed found that when her hike came to an end, she had come to terms with aspects of her life that had previously weighed on her, and the three months she spent hiking the PCT allowed her to start putting these events behind her. Escaping negativity as a temporary measure allows someone to put things into true perspective, are the things you worry about really that important? If you really think about the issue are you able to resolve that, in the end, life is short and you have to let it go? I think this is what happened with Cheryl Strayed, she found that even though the love of her life (her mother) had died, she had to just take some time to find closure, to move on.
For Strayed, she travelled for a short stint to act as a marker of her turning her life around. She likens travelling as a forced sense of reality :
“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.”
Travelling forces you to take the long way round, the least agreeable option, to breach your comfort zone. And how are we to know what we truly are capable of as a person if we don’t take those uncomfortable options sometimes?
“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it.”
In a world of continuously improving technology, of a pressure to wear designer clothes, have the latest iPhone and keep a wonderful house, we have increasingly become materialistic. I think a lot of people focus an awful lot on what they own, but not what really matters. And it is only in extreme conditions that we can appreciate this. I saw a programme on TV where a man that had cheated on his wife alongside the time when his son was taken and murdered, and through tears he told his wife ‘I was bored! Nothing happened with our lives, I felt like I was stuck in a rut and needed a way out, so I chose her because she was young and pretty and exciting, but now (our son) has gone, I would give anything for that routine every day, that blissful continual cycle that was out lives, I would give anything to have that back’. Here, the man has found himself bored, so sought a way out, but in doing so, lost what was really important – the love of his wife and the presence of his only son, and when that was gone, he realised his selfish arrogance. So back to travelling, perhaps that’s why people find travel appealing, because it breaks the mould, it gets rid of doing the same old thing day in day out, and lets people do what they really want to do.
But, some may say, travel is all very well and good, but it comes at a cost, a financial one. It’s expensive to travel!
But is it? Cheryl Strayed lived on less than $100 a week, perhaps meagerly, but she enjoyed it, she cherished each and every day, and she learnt much more than she ever could have staying at home. A british man (Graham Hughes, pictured below) has recently become the first man in the world to travel to all 201 countries in the world, without a plane, taking buses, taxis, trains and his own two feet to travel 160,000 miles in exactly 1,426 days – all on a shoestring of just $100 a week. ( Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2239087/Graham-Hughes-British-man-person-visit-201-countries-WITHOUT-using-plane.html#ixzz3d3IBGyy9 ). Similarly, adventurer Will Hatton has been on the road for the last seven years and blogs about his experiences over at http://www.thebrokebackpacker.com , living on under $100 a week.
So doesn’t that prove that travel is actually no more expensive than staying at home? Well, of course, it really isn’t as simple as that. Travelling means you don’t get all the things the rest of us take for granted – a guaranteed shower and bed, a mum on the other end of the phone to make you feel better, pointless arguments over the TV remote but to name a few. But… you do get a wealth of experience, knowledge and contentment from seeing all that the world has to offer. And financially – don’t forget that living at home provides most people a stable income, with a pension plan, taxes to pay, and nice things to spend your money on. Travelling can make this hard – professions have to be compatible with travelling to really make it work. I spoke to a couple, Jorge and Jess Gonzalez who have been travelling in their VW for a few years, and are both graphic designers, so their travel route depends on the locations of work placements, enabling them to seamlessly combine travel and income. There are arguments for every side really.
“That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.”
And there it is – is life really that complicated? We believe that it is, but when we are able to see that these complications consist mainly of whether our Amazon Prime order arrived too late and which car we should blow £10,000 on, we can see that the complications arise entirely of our own choices. We don’t need Amazon Prime or a new car to be happy, really, do we? Although it might help.
And when Cheryl’s journey had ended and she had to go back to facing the normality of every day life again, she writes philosophically of her return :
“It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That is was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be.”
The thing with travelling is that ultimately, we have to face those things like paying bills and organising which home to send our senile relatives to. Travelling is not a permanent escape, it is not a means to an end either. It is a bridge. It is a bridge that fills us up with knowledge and stories and passion, that then afterwards lets us follow our dreams and do what we really want to do.