Recently I read Cheryl Strayed’s personal memoir, Wild. I’m not quite sure why I read it: it was an account of her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), something I’d never heard of til I opened her book. I’d read her lovely book Tiny Beautiful Things, which kind of pours a vast ocean of zen wisdom into the unassuming vase of the agony-auntie form. It was inspiration in the unlikeliest place.
Anyway, Wild. I think I may have read it because I’ve been a little obsessed with the 90s lately. I was in my teens and early 20s in the 1990s. It felt – as I guess any time feels – like the very front of history. It felt like the present and the future all mixed into one. As I guess any present does. I was on the brink of adulthood, and every corner held promise and mystery. The teenage years were so miserable, that I figured (with that teenage logic-defying optimism) that life quite simply had to be about to soar into marvelousness.
I remember scouring vintage shops for old 70s clothing. I owned an extraordinary pair of denim bellbottoms (possibly the only jeans in the universe that have ever been really truly long enough for me – they sat incredibly tight on my teeny pre-even-thinking-about-children hips, and swing out incredibly wide around my unreasonably platformed feet). I unearthed them from a mothbally-smelling box in Second Time Round on Long Street. They felt like an artefact from a time long gone. The 70s were The Distant Past.
Yet here we are heading towards the 2020s. I spend a fair amount of my time simply being surprised at this weird little fact. The 90s are even further in the past now than the 70s were then. In 1993, twenty years was a lifetime to me. I suppose now, it’s only half a lifetime. But it’s hard not to be baffled by the optical illusion; why do they look closer than that? Why do they only feel like something that happened last year?
And the thing that Wild inadvertently captures – she doesn’t dwell on it in the book, but it’s utterly striking as you read it – is that there was this way of existing, which I guess will die out with my generation, which was utterly completely different to the way you exist now. You were alone, most of the time. You connected with people when you saw them, or spent time with them, or when you both coincided with opposite ends of a telephone, and the line worked, and one of you called, in real time.
There was no such thing as a mobile phone, so you went somewhere, you really went there. You really left the other thing behind. Cheryl Strayed did that thing (and many of us did it at that time): she went on a journey by herself. If you travelled somewhere, you were there. If you met people, you met them gratefully, because you didn’t carry all your people with you on Facebook on your phone. You did not “check in” or “post” or “ping”. You couldn’t scroll through a “timeline”, filling in time you’d missed with your pre-constituted network on “social media”, because it just didn’t exist. Aloneness was completely normal. It wasn’t always what you wanted, but if it was something you wanted, it was attainable.
In the book, she expresses quite beautifully the conflicting feelings around meeting others on the trail. She meets mentors, people who guide and inspire her. She makes friends, has a little crush, has a little fling. She’s marvelously honest about the sadness of the goodbyes, the moments in which part of her wants to stay with her new friends, bask in company and camaraderie and support. But she also talks about needing to get back to her solo walk, because for her, that journey was something she needed to do by herself.
I’m not decrying the delights of social media, and the many benefits it offers. But part of me ached a little for that time when you could do that. You could go by yourself for a walk, and be away, and be alone with yourself. It afforded us expanses of time – time to be bored, to be confused, to be alone, in all its comfort and discomfort.