BOOK: Your mother is recently dead, from cancer. So is your marriage, from your own infidelity. You've done heroin and gone a little nuts. What else is there to do but hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the Canadian border — all 1,100 miles of it — with a backpack that includes 25 pounds of water, cooking pots, a camp chair, several books and other unnecessary equipment guaranteed to make the three-month trek an ordeal. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf, 2012, 336 pages), even threw in a new last name before she set out, adopting a word that seemed to suit her perfectly since she felt she had wandered from a sensible path, diverged, digressed. "I saw … that I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn't have known before."
Why read? Redemption stories tend to pile banal insights into a self-righteous monument to the author, but Strayed seems less focused on triumph than on mortification of the flesh inflicted by a purifying ritual that leaves her with bruised feet, blackened toenails, bruises, scabs and the same hole in her heart, caused by her mother's death, that launched her on this ill-conceived journey. She doesn't dwell on her misery. On the contrary, she seems fixated on the absurdity of her plight, which begins with her removing her boots to ease her aching feet and dropping one over the edge of the overlook into the canopy of trees below. "I was alone," she says. "I was barefoot. I was 26 years old and an orphan, too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I'd told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world." Instead of setting herself above her readers, Strayed takes them along, carrying them in her bulging backpack as she trudges like a pilgrim toward a new life.
Make it: Strayed becomes desperately hungry on her trip, so snacking on a gourmet trail treat while discussing her book seems appropriate. The Smitten Kitchen provides a start with chewy granola bars that lend themselves to "wild" improvisation.
Drink it: While on the trail, Strayed is offered a cocktail, which she names a Hawaiian screwdriver. "It had ice cubes. It had vodka. It had pineapple juice. When I sipped it, I thought I would faint. Not from the alcohol hitting me, but from the sheer fabulousness of the combination of liquid sugar and booze." Since it was served to her in a plastic cup by some campers, she didn't get the recipe, so you're on your own. Ice, vodka, pineapple juice in whatever proportions seem inviting to you. Again, feel free to improvise.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an email to [email protected] Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.