From the moment Cheryl Strayed picks up her only remaining hiking boot, chucks it off the side of a ridge and continues her trek up the 2,653-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed has any reader with a sense of adventure hooked into her best-selling memoir, Wild.
(Am I doing this whole book review thing right by first talking about a completely different book than the one I’m reviewing? Yes, in this case:)
A vivid analysis of Strayed’s Wild is the backbone of Alden Jones’s The Wanting Was a Wilderness, but it does more than tell you what makes a good memoir. Jones shows how it’s done. “My goal in The Wanting Was a Wilderness is to demystify the memoir-writing process by scrutinizing the mechanics of this excellent and beloved memoir called Wild,” writes Jones. “The exercise: writing, within an analysis of Wild, my own narrative diagram of my time in the wilderness, using Wild as springboard, mirror, map.”
Not only does the book offer a roadmap for the budding memoirist, but Jones goes a step further, bushwhacking a trail for writers to follow.
Jones takes us to Asheville, North Carolina in 1992, and the start of her own hiking story, this one along the Appalachian Trail, a challenging trek familiar to readers of travel writer Bill Bryson’s 1998 memoir A Walk in the Woods. She cites the book as a pre-Wild example of a successful hiking memoir in which the writer claims no expertise in hiking, using humility to engage the reader. “Bryson tempers his educational mission with a humor that he is equally able to turn on himself as anyone else,” she writes. In a similar fashion, she tempers her own story, a sort of field guide for the memoirist, with self-deprecating humor, claiming no prior hiking expertise before taking on a portion of the AT and making clear that she’s a bookish person who “gym teachers unanimously disliked.”
Jones’ story is not a travel log. It’s an exploration of a particular time in her life, age 19 — just a year past living at home and high school, when most are still figuring out who they are.
“Cheryl Strayed’s story is about wanting something very specific she would never again have,” Jones writes. “I had a different wanting and my own wilderness, but it sent me, like Cheryl, into the actual wooded wild, where the feelings spilled over and then lay there in the dirt in front of our boots, forcing us to observe them, and then figure out how to clean them up.”
For Jones, the wanting was a love of her choosing. She hits upon this universal nerve, a yearning for a world in which she can realize her true self. For her as a queer woman, it was a world in which she “could have long hair and be attracted to both boys and girls and not want to punch people in the face all the time” for their prejudices. And the 80s and 90s were anything but.
“This was the era of the pink triangle,” she writes. “Silence equaled death. Americans, young and old, died of AIDS while their government did nothing to address the epidemic. Young queers were regularly cut off from their families and celebrities locked themselves in closets.”
At 19, Jones was struggling to put her sexuality out in the open. As a college freshman “too afraid to be gay,” she recounts throwing herself headlong into one hell of a wilderness school: Outward Bound, an intense, three-month, “guided,” coed expedition, in which her group’s misanthropic guides seem to have done little more than watch Jones and her fellow misadventurers tackle miles of mosquito-infested, rainy, off-trail trudgery, their only maps outdated; their only comforts being foul language and the occasional shower at the occasional way station.
Along the trail, a member of the group catches Jones’ attention. “Black hair, black boots, short, muscled, strong,” Melissa is an outdoors-savvy Indiana hippie fresh off of following the Grateful Dead on tour. From attraction grows a secretive romance, hidden just out of sight from their strict chaperones, and the casual homophobia of the 1990s proto-bros they hike with.
This inward-facing journey is the strong backbone of the Outward Bound adventure Jones recounts, demonstrating what makes a book like Strayed’s Wild powerful.
“It came to be a book about how reading a book can change your life,” she writes. “It came to be a book about how where you are in your life determines the kind of book you are going to write.”
Where The Wanting falls short is length. You come for the analysis of Strayed, you stay for the personal journey, and you’re left wanting 200 or more pages of Jones to read. But that’s forgetting the utility here: to show how memoir is achieved.
It’s not to say that this is a book merely for the student of writing. Yes, there’s something here for fans of Strayed and those hikers out there who, like Jones, just aren’t outdoorsy. But, critically, The Wanting invites readers to explore their own story, whether they decide to tell it or not.
The Wanting Was a Wilderness
by Alden Jones
Fiction Advocate; 198 p.