Tragedy struck during Strayed's senior year, when her 45-year-old mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Just seven weeks later, she was dead. A grieving, shattered Strayed failed to finish her last semester of school and started cheating on her new husband. She found work as a political organizer with Women Against Military Madness and what's now known as NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota. After realizing she didn't have time to both organize and write, she quit to waitress her way through the bills, and worked at Nikki's Cafe in the Warehouse District and at Mitterhauser's on Lyndale.

In the following years, the first half of the '90s, she rambled around the country, endured a painful divorce, fell in love with a heroin junkie, and started experimenting with the drug herself.

Strayed knew she needed to transform. First, in a conscious stab at reinvention, she dropped her given surname, Nyland. Her family had drifted apart in the wake of her mother's death, and she wanted to christen herself with something that seemed more her own. She was a stray, she felt, and she had strayed.

Strayed's class of 1986 high school yearbook lists her involvement at McGregor
courtesy of Cheryl Strayed
Strayed's class of 1986 high school yearbook lists her involvement at McGregor
Cheryl Strayed
Joni Kabana
Cheryl Strayed


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.

The writer Barrie Jean Borich met her around the time of her name change and remembers Strayed traveled light.

"Her only possession was her truck," Borich says. "I think she was even living in her truck at one point."

Struggling, Strayed thought of a book she had seen in the checkout line at the REI store in Bloomington. It was a guide to the Pacific Crest Trail. The grueling challenge, the 26-year-old decided, would give her the tools, and the clean slate, to remake herself. More than 15 years later, her months on the trail would also provide the narrative arc for her book.

"The thing about Wild is that it does follow a popular structure," says Borich, who teaches creative writing at DePaul University in Chicago. "That's the reason it gets on Oprah's list. It's a very readable book in that way. But she doesn't just rest on that structure, she challenges it. She doesn't go for easy redemption, and the writing is so strong that she manages to do both convention and art."

Part of the strength of that writing is its intimacy. Which means that sometimes, when she's standing in front of a packed room of strangers on tour, "it can be kind of squirmy," Strayed says.

"I'm up there in front of an audience and I'm telling people about my mother dying, or about being promiscuous, or about funny things too, like my husband spanking me when we first met. I sort of go, 'Gulp, here we go!'"

In July, Strayed published her second book of the year, Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her "Dear Sugar" advice columns for the literary website the Rumpus. Like Wild, the work aims to use Strayed's journeys to help her readers find their own way to transform.

This ability to make her audience's problems her own — to relate — is one of the key components of Strayed's success. Borich was walking with her at a writers' conference in Chicago when she experienced this first-hand.

"There were these women coming up to her and throwing themselves at her feet, saying, 'You saved my marriage,'" Borich recalls. "There's something about her that invites that."

Strayed is still, however, a Minnesota girl at heart. She doesn't just say thank you to these fans and walk away, says Borich. "She talks to them."

Strayed lives in Portland now, with her husband and their two kids, not far from where she ended her hike on the PCT in 1995. Coming back to Minnesota can be painful for her.

"It's like I have a ghost life in Minnesota," she says. "If I wanted to go spend Thanksgiving in Minnesota with 'my family,' I couldn't. I'd have to get a hotel room and say, 'I'll cook turkey there.' I feel those things when I go to Minnesota."

She comes to the Twin Cities on book tours, and will be in town for three nights in October doing readings. But the last time she was in Aitkin County was in 2009, to write a part of Wild that she describes as "the hardest thing I've ever written." It's a scene that recounts how she, her then-husband, and her brother had to kill her dead mother's horse. Strayed couldn't afford a veterinarian, and the three had to shoot the sick animal themselves.

She had a reading at Hamline University, and decided to extend the trip in order to write the painful passage. Strayed found a retreat about 10 miles down the road from her old home. When she got there, she realized her stepfather, a carpenter, had built the cabin.

"He has a very recognizable style. It looked like my house," she says, before correcting herself. "I mean the house where I grew up."

Strayed spent the next five days writing the horse scene "over and over, and over and over, and over," she says. "It was intense. But it was the right place to be doing it."

Though she doesn't return often, she's been happily surprised by the reception she's gotten in McGregor. People back in her hometown have read her books — the East Central Regional Library System has six copies each of Wild and of Strayed's previous book, Torch, an autobiographical novel set in a McGregor stand-in. Old friends have reached out with congratulations.

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