Studying at Oxford can be brilliant, but the infamous bubble is often stifling and claustrophobic. Mistakes, problems, and difficult situations totally surround us and seem inescapable – that is, until term finishes and most of us migrate out of the city.
Taking a break from our whirlwind lives at Oxford can provide an outsider’s perspective which allows us to analyse them, be grateful for them, or change them. After a Hilary term filled with feelings of isolation and disorientation, the break is an invaluable time to rediscover our bearings.
But we as students are given these six week holidays, when for many this sort of break has to be self-imposed. This kind of self-imposed holiday, to recuperate and reflect, is presented with passion, humility and humour by Cheryl Strayed in Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
In the years leading up to 1995, Cheryl Stayed had gotten lost. After losing her mother to lung cancer at twenty-one years old, she took a series of wrong turns and found herself on a stained and bare mattress, next to a stranger, in an unknown city with a syringe full of heroine stuck in her ankle.
Cheryl decided to leave the whirlpool of disaster which her life had become and walk 1,100 miles up the West Coast of America, from the heat Mojave desert to the Bridge of God’s in North Oregon “to become the person my mother raised [me] to be”.
This could easily be seen as an indulgent holiday of alleged self-discovery, in a “gap-yah” fashion, but Strayed makes clear that the walk she takes is not a choice. It is an ardent, inconvenient necessity made in order to salvage her life and move on.
While most of her suffering was, in many respects, self-inflicted (her dropping out of college, her string of unfulfilling jobs, her compulsive promiscuity leading to divorce, and her eventual drug addiction) they nonetheless knocked her off her path in a shocking and brutal manner.
On her trip, she does not discover herself per se. In fact, the ending passage of the novel reflects on how neither she, nor anyone else, can ever fully know their “mysterious and irrevocable” self. Instead, it revels in the beauty of not needing to analyse and understand the meaning of every confusing element of ourselves.
The trip affirms for, not reveals to, Cheryl what she already knows of herself and the world, but has lost sight of. That she is a part of, not apart from, nature and the wilderness, as much as the mountains she climbs and the forest she treks through. And that she can bear more than she ever thought.
But most of all, the trek makes it undeniably clear to her that she is a writer. It shows her what she always suspected; that, through navigating in the wild, through her bizarre encounters, though each unique and life-affirming experience, she sees the world as a story to tell.
In the endless, lonely hours of her trek, once she has worked through the kinks of her past, she begins to recycle it into what would become her first novel. Thirteen years later she does this again, with the trek itself, for her second.
While the author’s experiences are certainly niche and call for somewhat drastic action, Strayed’s little unconventional holiday from her life is one of the better choices made in her twenties. Her holiday contains lessons which are of value to all of us. By cutting away all arbitrary goals, she is able to rid herself of her cluttered aspirations and illusionary needs, to find what kind of a path she wants to return to.
Any holiday – be it a few days at home, a lazy week on the beach, a lad’s trip to Magaluf or even the aforementioned “gap yah” – detaches us and creates a little distance from our everyday lives. They allow us to assess them and maybe, as was the case for Cheryl, show us how we can abandon, express or change them.