Cheryl Strayed says the Pacific Crest Trail will always feel like home. She recounts her 1,100-mile hike on the PCT in her runaway bestseller "Wild," which marks its 10th anniversary.

Cheryl Strayed says the Pacific Crest Trail will always feel like home. She recounts her 1,100-mile hike on the PCT in her runaway bestseller "Wild," which marks its 10th anniversary.

Todd Sonflieth, Todd Sonflieth / OPB

Ten years ago, the runaway hit “Wild” propelled Cheryl Strayed’s career into the stratosphere.

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“Wild” recounts Strayed’s harrowing three-month, 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

“The number one question I get about my book is, did my toenails grow back? I lost six of them on my hike,” says Strayed. “It took a few years for my toenails to be normal and especially those big toenails.”

Without any previous backpacking experience, at the age of 26, she embarked on the journey to grieve the sudden death of her mother. Strayed was also facing down chaos in her life, including heroin abuse and divorce.

In 2014, the book was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie, starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl and Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi.

Crippling debt

When “Wild” was released 10 years ago, Strayed and her husband, filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, were $85,000 in credit card debt, she says. They were also paying off college loans.

“We went from qualifying for food stamps, which we didn’t apply for because having grown up using food stamps, I just felt too much shame. Not that I think there’s any shame in getting food stamps, but just for myself, I didn’t feel right,” she continues. “But pretty much overnight this thing happened and then suddenly we had a kind of stability that we never dreamed.”

The sale of “Wild” went through the roof, enabling Strayed to eventually buy their house with cash.

“If you pay in cash, they don’t own you. They can’t take it away from you.”

‘Tiny Beautiful Things’

Strayed’s book “Tiny Beautiful Things” was released shortly after “Wild” debuted in 2012. That second book compiles highlights from her online advice column Dear Sugar.

Writing under the name Sugar, Strayed draws on her own life to answer difficult questions about life, love and loss.

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She penned the deep and fiercely honest column from 2010 to 2012, even though it was unpaid and anonymous.

“Something inside of me sparked,” she says, “I decided to take the Dear Sugar column really seriously and to give it the full force of my humanity and to really make them literary pieces.”

Cheryl Strayed, seen here in her Portland home, says that in the decade since the publication of her bestselling book "Wild," she's continued to build on her lifelong “education by doing.”

Cheryl Strayed, seen here in her Portland home, says that in the decade since the publication of her bestselling book "Wild," she's continued to build on her lifelong “education by doing.”

Brandon Swanson / OPB

Her intuitive decision to accept the unpaid role of “Dear Sugar” did not ease the dire financial pressures facing Strayed and her husband. But it later reaped creative rewards, culminating in a bestselling book and an acclaimed play adaptation.

In late 2016, “Tiny Beautiful Things” debuted on stage in New York City to rave reviews. Actress and writer Nia Vardalos wrote the play and starred in the premiere. It was directed and co-conceived by Thomas Kail, the Tony Award-winning director of the musical “Hamilton.”

The play has been staged in theaters all over the country and beyond.

Recent projects

As part of her “education by doing,” Strayed has “an accidental career as a public speaker.”

“It was a whole new skill set that I had to learn. Like how do you hold a room?”

At first, Strayed read her speeches from notes, but discovered that made her nervous, she says. She was more comfortable preparing for a lecture and then winging it.

“Somebody else would be terrified to go out there without a piece of paper, but it was actually kind of a cool lesson for me to trust my instincts the same way that I’ve trusted my instincts as a writer,” says Strayed.

“Then sometimes as I’m talking, just like as I’m writing, another layer of truth will be revealed to me.”

If you’re eager to read her next book, she’s working on it.

“I think of myself as a very intuitive writer. I never know where anything is going to go until I write it,” says Cheryl about her next memoir. “Don’t talk about a book until it’s done.”

Learn more about Cheryl Strayed in this video from Oregon Art Beat:

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