Among the many questions I have about people who are single-at-heart is whether big, expansive outdoor settings – the wild, basically – are especially appealing to them. We know, at least in a preliminary way, that people who are single at heart are even more likely than others to savor solitude, to make decisions mostly on their own, and to be self-sufficient. They have a sense of personal mastery. They value meaningful work more than people who are not single-at-heart, so maybe they also drawn to particularly meaningful pursuits in other domains, too.
Before I read Cheryl Strayed’s wildly popular Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I guessed that it would be the story of the ultimate single-at-heart experience. Strayed walked the trail for more than 1,000 miles, from the Mojave Desert to the state of Washington. I’d never have the stamina to make it even one full day, but the idea of the adventure had enormous appeal in the abstract. The author set out on her own, years after her mother had died way too young. The months-long hike seemed to offer plenty of time for contemplation, along with spectacular vistas.
Once I started reading, though, just about everything Strayed described sounded awful. Her backpack was so heavy she could barely lift it. She hiked in sweltering heat some days, and frigid cold on others. Most days, there was not another soul anywhere in sight. She was in pain a great deal of the time, from the pack and the ill-fitting boots and the trials of the trail. The path sometimes disappeared in the snow. Sleeping meant pitching a tent and curling up with too few layers of clothing and little protection from the elements, the animals, the reptiles, or any humans who might be less-than-friendly. She wore the same gross clothes day after day. Rest stops with actual bathrooms, bedrooms, and warm food were few and far between. There were times when Strayed arrived at such a stop with just a few coins to her name.
Despite the hardships, the trek through more than 1,000 miles of the wild truly was a healing experience for Cheryl Strayed. The alone part of it was essential. Toward the end, after Strayed had spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours totally alone, she met some fellow hikers whose company she enjoyed. She told them, though, that she would not hike with them during the final stretch. Her journey was ultimately a solo one, and she wanted to finish it alone.
When I got to the very last page of Wild, I wasn’t ready to stop. I went online looking to learn more about the amazing woman who is also a moving, understated, and lyrical writer.
I don’t think Cheryl Strayed is single-at-heart. She was married (and divorced) before she started her hike. That did not seem all that significant; my guess is that lots of married people are single-at-heart. But then she married again sometime afterwards, so that makes me more skeptical. In any case, maybe the prospect of truly testing yourself, of heading off into the wilderness all alone, surviving everything that the wild can throw at you, and triumphing at the end, has an appeal that transcends marital or relationship status.