October 24, 2014

By: Molly Guthrey

Cheryl Strayed became famous after writing about walking and grieving on the Pacific Crest Trail, but the Midwest is a special place for her, too.

“It means so much to be in my home state, my beloved Minnesota,” Strayed told a full house gathered at Concordia University in St. Paul on Monday.

“Even though I was not born here, even though I don’t live here anymore, this is home to me,” said Strayed, who now lives in Portland, Ore. “Whenever I am here, I feel this place in my blood in a way that we can come to feel places as sacred in our lives. Minnesota is absolutely sacred ground to me.”

Minnesota is where Strayed’s mother, Bobbi Lambrecht, died in 1991.

Strayed returned to Minnesota to talk about life before and after the 2012 publication of her best-seller “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” (Random House).

Big things started happening for this unknown writer after Oprah Winfrey selected “Wild” as the debut title for her “Oprah Book Club 2.0.” Now, with Strayed’s help, the book has been adapted into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and will be in theaters Dec. 5.

Minnesota Connection

Strayed was 6 years old when she and her family moved to Chaska. Later, after her parents divorced, Strayed’s mother moved her family to Beaver Township in Aitkin County. This is where Strayed remembers a happy childhood in the country, free from the fear and anger of their Chaska home.

After graduating from high school, Strayed moved to the Twin Cities, where she studied at the University of St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota. During this time, her mother also attended college, a lifelong dream.

During the mother-and-daughter’s senior year, though, Strayed’s mother died suddenly of cancer. She was 45.

Her death sent Strayed, then 21, into a dark place of suffering and bad choices that ended her first marriage and led to a heroin problem. She found her path out of trouble a few years later, during a Minnesota blizzard, when she stopped at REI in Bloomington to look for a camp shovel to keep in her car.

“I saw a book for sale,” Strayed said. ” ‘The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California.’ “

The Hike

In 1995, Strayed, then 26, walked 1,100 miles of that trail, from the Mojave Desert in California to the border of Oregon and Washington state.

On this journey, Strayed found the reason to live.

She said she made sure the reason was included in the movie, in a moment when Witherspoon tells her therapist: “I know that I mattered.”

She had mattered, Strayed said, to her mother.

“I had been loved really well,” Strayed said. “You don’t lose that.

wild coverMy mother had loved me too well to ruin myself.”

Strayed said she realized: “I can’t destroy that. I have to honor her.”

Before the hike, Strayed was a waitress in Minnesota. After the hike, Strayed was a waitress in Oregon. Nothing had changed; everything had changed.

“I was operating under a different truth,” Strayed told the crowd Monday. “I had decided to be present and awake in my own life.”

It was many years later that she wrote about that journey; it was her second book, her first work of nonfiction. As she wrote, she realized it wasn’t about the hike.

“I think it wasn’t a heroic hike,” she said. “I think I was in a heroic battle to get back to myself.”

The Book

It was a journey her readers recognize, Strayed said, and this has been more important than an Oprah pick or a movie deal.

“By far the most important thing has been people looking me in the eye every single day since this book was published about two and a half years ago, looking at me and saying, ‘Thank you.’ … ‘I had that feeling, too.’ … ‘I know what you mean.’ … ‘I felt seen by you.’ … ‘I had that kind of loss.’ … ‘I thought I was the only one.’

“I really wrote all that stuff in ‘Wild’ about my wild grief, I wrote it with a lot of fear that the book would be read and scorned: ‘She’s just too much, too much,’ ” Strayed said.

“And what I found was that it was actually just enough. It was speaking to the truth of what it means to grieve. And for whatever reason, we as a society aren’t really good at telling that story — the full, savage, raw truth of what it means to lose somebody who is essential to you.

“The greatest gift to me in writing ‘Wild’ has been that — being a voice that contributes to a conversation that I think we need to have.”

Scholarships

Concordia University of St. Paul has announced that it will award three incoming January students a $5,000 Bobbi Lambrecht scholarship in honor of author Cheryl Strayed’s mother. At age 40, Lambrecht returned to college to obtain her bachelor’s degree. Earning a degree was so important to Lambrecht that at the beginning of her studies, she drove three hours each way to class, exemplifying the Concordia commitment to education at any age.

Learn more about the scholarships at tinyurl.com/nodjxvc.

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