Cheryl Strayed on the rigors of the book tour trail, writing, and reconnecting with characters from "Wild"

Cheryl Strayed in the Boundary Waters, July 1991.
Cheryl Strayed in the Boundary Waters, July 1991.
courtesy Cheryl Strayed

Along with a half-million-copies-selling, Oprah's-book-club-restarting memoir comes a book tour. And Cheryl Strayed has been on tour for months.

See also:
- Feature: Cheryl Strayed calls upon her Minnesota roots before resurrecting Oprah's book club
- Slideshow: Cheryl Strayed: In the wild
- Event: Cheryl Strayed reads at Micawber's Bookstore

It started on Valentine's Day, when Strayed revealed her identity as the much-read, much-loved, previously anonymous advice columnist Dear Sugar. On March 20, her memoir, Wild, hit shelves, and she got on the road in earnest, criss-crossing the country for a month straight with readings and appearances. As if she weren't busy enough, on July 10, she released a collection of her columns as Sugar, titled Tiny Beautiful Things, and went back on tour.

All of that time on planes and in hotel rooms requires preparation, and Strayed has found herself having to strategize much as she did back in 1995, when she spent three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT), 1,100 miles from California's Mojave Desert up to the Oregon-Washington border.

As she recounts in Wild, all she had was herself, her hiking boots, and her insanely heavy backpack, nicknamed Monster. She mailed resupply boxes to herself at outposts along the trail, quickly ditched non-essential equipment, and even burned pages of the books she read at night to lighten her load.

This time around, Strayed's shoes are Doc Martens Mary Janes instead of boots. She has a carry-on bag, carefully selected for utility, instead of Monster. And while she's no longer burning books, she is ripping pages out of her massive itinerary and tossing them in hotel trash bins.

"I'm always thinking about what I'm packing," Strayed says. "It's funny. It feels very similar."

The other thing about a book tour: It brings you back in contact with people. One of the first excess pieces Strayed abandoned on the PCT was her foldable saw, which she left at the Kennedy Meadows rest stop after getting laughed off the trail by more seasoned hikers. She met a trail angel -- that is, someone who hangs out at the camps to greet backpackers on pilgrimage -- at that outpost, but she hadn't talked to him since her hike, about 18 summers ago. Then, at an early August reading in Los Angeles, there was a guy sitting in the front row.

"I didn't recognize him at first," Strayed says. But she looked at him, and he said, "It's Ed!" After the pair laughed and greeted each other, Ed pulled out his bag. "He takes out my foldable saw," Strayed continues, "the foldable saw that I left at Kennedy Meadows in 1995. I was so astounded. I held it and I was like, 'This is the foldable saw I had on the trail!'

"And then I realized, I can't take it. I can't take it in my carry on," she says, laughing. Much as she did on the trail, she handed it back to Ed, though this time she asked him to mail it to her.

Funny logistical echoes aside, Strayed's two many-month journeys -- one on the PCT, the other on the road, as she transforms into a celebrity author -- are fundamentally different. "This has certainly been a life-altering year," Strayed  says. "But most of the changes are external. My career is on a different level, more people are reading my work.

"But the PCT was all about internal, emotional, psychological transformation and growth," she continues. "This past year has been about the fruits of my labor. I'm still the same old me, those fruits are just out there dangling on a tree."

"Fruits of labor" is a good way of putting it. Strayed has been framed this year as an overnight

courtesy Cheryl Strayed
The author in fourth grade.

success, but she's careful to point out that, in fact, she's been laboring away, writing essays and racking up debt, for years. When she was a kid growing up in McGregor, MN, she didn't know that a writer was a thing she could be. "When I was a teenager, I did not know it was possible. I didn't know any writers," Strayed says. "But I knew I wanted to be one."

So she worked at it. "A lot of people have said I came out of nowhere, but nothing could be further from the truth," Strayed says. "My success this year is built on a million smaller successes -- things like the fact that I found my way to college and stayed. That I kept writing when it would have made sense for me to be more practical about how to earn a living."

Finally, those successes -- and sacrifices -- are yielding benefits. Strayed paid off the last of her student loan debt on Monday, September 17. It was her 44th birthday.

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