Cheryl Strayed calls upon her Minnesota roots before resurrecting Oprah's book club

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Slideshow: Cheryl Strayed in the wild

Cheryl Strayed has made transformation stories something of a career.

The author about 900 miles and two months into her hike, at Crater Lake, Oregon in August 1995
courtesy of Cheryl Strayed
The author about 900 miles and two months into her hike, at Crater Lake, Oregon in August 1995


Meet Cheryl Strayed: Three October events:

Books & Bars: Tuesday, Oct. 16, 5:30 at Amsterdam Bar, 6 W. 6th St., St. Paul.

St. Thomas: Wednesday, Oct. 17, 7:30 at John Roach Center for the Liberal Arts Auditorium, St. Paul Campus.

Micawber's Books: Thursday, Oct. 18, 7 at 2238 Carter Ave., St. Paul.

Her memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, hit shelves March 20. A few weeks later, she got a call from a number she didn't recognize. Oprah Winfrey was on the line.

The mogul had just finished Wild. She loved it enough, she told Strayed, that she wanted it to launch a new version of her famous reading group, "Oprah's Book Club 2.0." Not long after, Strayed was hanging out in the backyard at Oprah's Santa Barbara estate.

Now, Wild has sold 500,000 copies (including print and digital) and been on the New York Times bestseller list for 20 weeks. NPR praised the book as "One of the most original, heartbreaking, and beautiful memoirs in years;" the New York Times Book Review described it as "spectacular" and "a literary and human triumph." Reese Witherspoon's production company quickly snapped up the movie rights.

"It's been like a bomb going off. Just beyond my wildest expectations," Cheryl Strayed says from her hotel room in Raleigh, North Carolina, the latest stop on her months-long book tour.

It's about as far as she could have gotten from her hometown of McGregor, Minnesota. Strayed always knew she wanted to get out of McGregor, but the drive to flee Minnesota entirely came later, after her life disintegrated here. In her final semester at the U of M, her mother died suddenly and Strayed entered a downward spiral. At bottom, she was a divorced college dropout flirting with a heroin problem.

To pull herself back out, Strayed decided to hike 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, from California's Mojave Desert up to the Oregon-Washington border. Wild tells the story of her three months in the woods with nothing but herself, a comically oversized backpack nicknamed "Monster," and her hiking boots (or, for a few hairy days after she lost a boot over the edge of a cliff, her duct-taped camp shoes).

When Strayed left for the PCT, she also left Minnesota. Being in the state where her life fell apart hurt too much. She lives in Portland now, but she'll be in town for three appearances in October. And Minnesota is still, she says, the place that feels like home.

"Minnesota is my people, my place," Strayed tells City Pages. "But it's one of the most complicated emotions I think I've ever had about anything, the way I feel about Minnesota."

Strayed moved to Aitkin County from Chaska when she was 13, growing up on 40 acres of woods and farm in a house her mother and stepfather built by hand.

The area was rural. Even today, the entire county has just one stoplight, and the 2010 census tallied only 391 residents of McGregor. But McGregor was just the closest town. Strayed lived even farther out in the middle of nowhere — 20 miles south of town in Beaver Township. She was the last stop on the school bus and had a three-hour daily commute.

"There weren't a lot of people up there that didn't have running water and didn't have electricity," says Strayed's high school English teacher, Ginny Wallace. "But she didn't have either one."

Not only was Strayed the new kid in a small town, but her family lived back-to-the-land style, which didn't exactly help her fit in with her classmates.

"We were seen as hippies," Strayed says. "My mom made clothes, and gardened, and she did stuff like didn't shave, which I was just horrified by."

Desperate for acceptance, Strayed invented a persona as a cheerleader and a homecoming queen.

"Cheerleaders are more beloved than the smart girl sitting at the back of the room reading Jane Eyre," Strayed says. "The real me was the girl reading, but I pretended to be that other person to survive."

Strayed was always ambitious — "since I was like four," she says — and did well enough in school to get into the University of St. Thomas. By the time she moved to the Twin Cities for her freshman year of college, she was ready to shake off the north woods.

"In some ways I over-corrected from that small-town self," Strayed says.

She bought groceries at the Wedge and at Mississippi Market, and hung out at the 400 Club, the New Riverside Cafe, and the Uptown Bar. ("Is the Uptown Bar still around?" she asks, smiling. When she hears that it shuttered in 2009, she responds, "Oh. Yeah, when I drove through Uptown the last time I was in town it's just like, well what happened to Uptown?").

She transferred to the U for her second year of school and started taking writing classes. Her senior-year fiction professor, Paulette Bates Alden, remembers her as driven.

"Cheryl from the beginning had a particularly keen interest in writing," Alden says. "There was this material that was different than your usual background — this rural, almost hand-to-mouth existence up there in the northern woods — and also this tremendous ability to describe it and capture it."

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