The final couplet of our national anthem never made good sense to me, growing up. Land of the free? I wasn't free. There were dance classes, music lessons, chores, college applications, jobs, outings, taxes. And, waiting to be stuffed into those intermittent cavities between duties, books.
Home of the brave? My mother described me, politely, as "timid." I made the Cowardly Lion look like a badass.
Then I saw my father dive headfirst into the garbage after a basketball game. At the arena, the trash cans were heavy, clangorous affairs, sounding against your head as you burrowed for what was, according to my dad, a big-time plastic cup bonanza.
The theory went like this: If you bought a drink at the game, which we never in our wildest, most profligate dreams, would think of doing, the concensioneers handed to you in a 16 oz plastic cup. And at the end of the night, if you were the kind of person who spent $3.50 on lukewarm pepsicola, well, you just might be the kind of person who threw away a perfectly good plastic cup.
He was right. There were lots of cups. For free! All you needed was an iron stomach and no shame.
It's powerful, the lure of the free. It's how I got at least half of my furniture, a shameful percentage of my shoes, and, um, certain of my drinkware. It's why I finally picked up Cheryl Strayed's Wild, an over-marketed, over-Oprahed, argually overpriced retelling of the author's summer-long schlep up the Pacific Crest Trail.
But hey! Free! On Overdrive, direct to my Kindle! Thanks, libraries!
In Wild, Strayed chronicles her spiral away from, and back towards, mental health, as enabled by a whole lot of walking. I don't usually go in for nonfiction, but did I mention this was free? Plus books are supposed to muscle us into worlds beyond our ken, and if there was one thing I'd never contemplated, it was walking until my toenails fell off.
I started. Then, only a couple of pages in, I stopped. Strayed had dropped a reference to the fact that she'd been a cheerleader. She'd been a homecoming queen. It was so easy, she reported, of picking up man after man.
All of this, the beauty and the power and the ease, was the furthest thing from my experience. Cheryl had trouble not sleeping with the many men she encountered. I had trouble getting a date. She struggled to conceal her beauty of the trail. I struggled to stop longing to be -under the male gaze- visible.
Clearly, the author was not my kind of woman.
I set the book aside. I tried out some lines Easy come, easy go, I told Wild. It's not you, it's me. You're just not my kind of book.
But Strayed kept slogging forward under the weight of her pack, and, at last, so did I. She'd wanted to hike the PCT, and she'd had to live with the consequences. I'd wanted a window into a life that wasn't, and could never be, my own, and, hell, I'd gotten it. Neither of us had any right to complain.
It's a very human thing, to search out ourselves in one another. It's lonely on the trail and it's lonely off it, and if some part of us comes to every book hoping -hunting- for the story of ourselves- well, it's not the worst thing in the world.
But it's not the bravest, and it doesn't allow us, as every book should, to slip, for an hour or two, our reins. I shouldn't have stopped. But at least I'm on my way.