Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage, was one of 2012’s biggest and best books. Even Oprah thought so; she made it her first pick when she relaunched her book club! With its clear-eyed portrayal of Strayed’s all-consuming sorrow and loneliness, and the incredible story of her (some might say foolhardy) determination to seek answers in an unforgiving landscape, Wild was #2 on the BookPage editors’ Best of 2012 list.
Strayed’s memoir encompasses so many different themes—grief, adventure, the healing power of nature, the journey to forgiveness and growth, discovering a community of like-minded misfits—that each reader takes away something different. If you’re longing for something in a similar vein, try one of the following.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Like Wild, Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a heartbreaking but beautifully told memoir of living through loss. When Gail Caldwell met Caroline Knapp, the two formed a quick, deep bond over such shared experiences as the joys and frustrations of writing, long walks with their beloved dogs and their self-destructive, alcoholic pasts. Knapp was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and died a few short months later; Caldwell’s grief over the loss of her friend knocked her flat. Her book is a powerful testament to a close friendship and the person she has become in its wake.
Claiming Ground by Laura Bell
Laura Bell’s life has taken many unexpected turns. After graduating college in the 1970s, she had a hard time figuring out who, or what, she wanted to be. So she turned to what she knew to be real and true—her love of animals and the land—and moved to Wyoming to become a sheepherder. It was not an easy job, especially for a young woman, but she learned to face her failures and celebrate her strengths, all the while reveling in the harsh splendor of the Western landscape. Over the years, she turned to different jobs (forest ranger, masseuse) and different people for companionship, surviving divorce and agonizing loss along the way. Inspiring in the best way, Bell’s memoir chronicles a lifetime of learning how to be herself.
Townie by Adre Duhus III
The working-class neighborhoods of Lowell, Massachusetts, are no place for a young boy to admit to any weakness. In such an environment, Andre Dubus III grew up poor and, by age 11, the child of an acrimonious divorce. After years of enduring taunts and violence against his family, he fought back, transforming himself into a strong, vicious boxer and brawler. Eventually, he turned to writing as a way to lift himself out of misery and the dead-end life he was living, and also to untangle his relationship with his father after a serious injury. Light reading it is not, but readers who loved Wild for its unflinching look at Strayed’s sad and troubled family will appreciate the portrait of love and loneliness that Dubus paints in Townie.
Fire Season by Philip Connors
Philip Connors has spent many summers as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, a job that allows him to attune himself deeply to the natural world around him. Though the work is not as physically demanding as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, it requires long hours of solitude and the close, thorough observation of the forest. With nothing but the sights and sounds of the woods to distract him, Connors can achieve a sort of meditative peace that lends itself well to the daily practice of writing. When he observes that natural fires (caused by lightning strikes) are often beneficial, even necessary, to the survival of the forest’s ecosystem, readers will realize that the truths he uncovers on the mountain may have meaning in their own lives as well.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
If you’re looking for a lighter take on the experience of long-distance hiking, Bill Bryson’s modern classic A Walk in the Woods is essential reading. Like Strayed, Bryson is not exactly prepared for the rigors of the journey when he sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, and his bumbling efforts and dry humor make for an irresistible combination. Along the way, he learns about the history and allure of the AT and meets a number of curious characters—including his traveling companion, a cranky, monosyllabic and somewhat rundown friend from his high school days.
Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende
Heather Lende, columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, has been compared to writers such as Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard for her gentle but deep-seated spirituality and her love of the natural world—in this case, the mountainous beauty of her Alaska home. In this collection of essays and observations, Lende writes with grace and humor about challenges and triumphs both personal and communal, and captures the spirit of community that infuses her small town. Like Strayed, Lende struggles with big questions, and finds inspiration in the beautiful but unforgiving landscape around her.