Three Noted Authors Face their Fears and Overcome Personal Challenges

By Tim Hauserman

Looking for a good read about adventurous women overcoming their fears and striking out into the wilderness? You can’t go wrong with one of these books: Wild by Cheryl Strayed; Almost Somewhere by Suzanne Roberts; and Learning to Fly by Steph Davis. They all focus on how the physical challenge of doing something exciting helped them work through the personal issues they were facing in their lives. And more importantly, they are all entertaining reads.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

I’ve read memoirs about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail before. They talk about the hardship of hiking the trail and how overcoming that hardship brought them peace and a powerful feeling of accomplishment. Wild does all that, but it’s really more of a story about how a woman attempts to use the rigors of a PCT hike to fix her messed-up life.

In a presentation at the Squaw Valley Institute in January, Strayed told the packed house, “I hiked the PCT because I bottomed out and failed. I recognized the trail was bigger than me. That maybe I could restore myself by doing it.” Strayed’s story is a raw and unvarnished account of how she took a life that sucked, and made it much worse. As her desperate story unfolded I found myself wanting to reach across the pages and shake her back into her senses.

At her lowest point, Strayed wandered into the Minneapolis REI, and after seeing a pretty picture of the Sierra Nevada on the cover of a guidebook to the Pacific Crest Trail, decides to hike the PCT. While Wild is primarily a brutally honest life story that keeps the reader hoping that Cheryl will get her act together, I also thoroughly identified with the hiking portion of the story.

A poignant scene in the book is when she admits to herself on her first day on the trail—as she is failing in her efforts to hoist her monstrous pack onto her back—that she has never really backpacked before. Strayed said in Squaw Valley that she discovered on the trail that while day hiking was like raising twins, backpacking was like birthing them. But like most people who have successfully trudged through a long hike, she discovered that time on the trail is not only a challenge, but it is also incredibly rewarding. When she began her quest I kept saying, “She is doing everything wrong,” but by the time she had finished, I was impressed with how her willpower and stubbornness allow her to succeed in the end.

Almost Somewhere: Twenty Eight Days on the John Muir Trail by Suzanne Roberts

Like Wild, Almost Somwhere is about a young woman facing the challenge of a long hike that she is not prepared for. While Roberts’ voice and focus is less raw then Strayed’s, it may ring true for a larger group of people. For while Roberts’ story is about discovering who she wants to be, it is also about the crazy, difficult to understand dynamics between young women.

Fresh from college, almost on a whim, she decides to hike the John Muir Trail with two other girls. One is a super athlete, but a dictator, and the other has a sweet disposition, but suffers from bulimia and a host of other emotional issues, a fact that is hidden from the dictator before departure. Roberts meanwhile is boy crazy, worried about her image, and anxious about being a woman on the trail. As a guy I enjoyed reading these details, if only to understand how clueless I have been about the emotional issues many of my female hiking buddies are facing.

Roberts struggles to learn how to overcome the stereotypes of others, but mostly it is an internal struggle, trying to figure out where she wants to go in life.
Roberts’ writing, like Strayed’s, is an honest and frank appraisal of her abilities on the trail. She is the first to admit that the hike is hard, and she is not as prepared as she should be. But her appreciation of the beauty of wilderrness is something that outdoor oriented readers will welcome, and it is her love of nature that eventually helps Roberts cope with her experience.

Of the three books, Almost Somewhere is my favorite. Her writing is filled with wonderful descriptions and is often sprinkled with lovely self-deprecating humor. Her voice to me is realistic and rings true: A woman who is vulnerable and understands her limitations, but is also determined to overcome challenges.

Learning to Fly, by Steph Davis

First off, I cannot read this title without immediately singing the next line as well, “…but I ain’t got wings.” Whoever came up with this title, nice job.
This just-published book is written from the perspective of a young, well-known climber named Steph Davis. Her marriage is falling apart and she is burned out on the sponsored climbing lifestyle. So she heads home to Moab, Utah, but along the way finds herself connecting with a friend and ends up learning to skydive in Boulder, Colorado. Her instant love of jumping out of planes is soon surpassed by her next obsession: BASE-jumping.

As I read this book I quickly learned I didn’t know squat about skydiving and BASE-jumping, and what I thought I knew was wrong. I also learned that while I tried hard to understand it, I still could not appreciate the desire to jump out of a perfectly good plane, or just step off the edge of a cliff. I kept scratching my head and asking, “What the hell is she thinking?”

Obviously, I don’t have the “extreme” gene. If you have that gene, you will most likely find this book especially fascinating and thought provoking. Davis is a sympathetic and incredibly determined character and it is captivating to watch her progress through heartbreak and injuries as she sets a new course in her life.

While most people, even those who haven’t embarked on a lengthy backpack trip, can imagine themselves hiking along with Roberts and Strayed, I’m not sure if Davis’ book can bridge that important gap. Learning to Fly is a story about a truly badass, incredibly strong woman pushing herself to her limits, while Roberts’ and Strayed’s stories are more about regular people doing something that is extraordinary. That’s not to say that Learning to Fly isn’t an intriguing read, just that you should expect more “Into Thin Air” and less “Eat, Pray, Love.”

Tim Hauserman wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the third edition of which was published in August of 2012. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children.