Drop it on the trail: My favorite memoirs start out messy

Ahhh, thank you, Divorce. You’ve spawned many a transformational journey — and consequently some of my most-cherished books.

If you’re a fan of memoir, as I am, you’re familiar with this meme: Post-trauma, the emotionally-scarred embark on a vision quest of sorts — a physical journey that will challenge their idea of themselves — then they return — and write about it — bringing that rich experience to us so we can profit from it vicariously.

Several of my all-time favorite memoirs began this way. Messy:

Cheryl Strayed

Her mother’s early death and the subsequent shattering of her family sends Cheryl Strayed into a suckhole of despair. Ultimately she abandons her marriage vows and descends into heroin and a type of emotional squalor. Until she alights on the idea of a purging trek, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alone, without training. Wild offers some of the greatest writing on the interiority of a journey you’ll ever encounter.

Eat Pray Love
Elizabeth Gilbert

This funny, touching tale of a year abroad — in three diverse lands, each with its own purpose — eating in Italy; spiritual retreat in India, a feast of the senses in Bali — is set in motion after the author discards her marriage and home. Few writers capture the fullness of experience better, from playfulness to vivid spiritual epiphany to the beginnings of a seriously sexy mature romance.

The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling The Pacific
Paul Theroux

Divorce again haunts the beginnings of this adventure. Travel writer Paul Theroux kayaks from island to island, his aloneness informing his already keen eye for observation. You encounter  those who take him in, those who threaten him (a young islander casually and pointedly prods the canvas skin of his kayak), those who wantonly destroy their own environment (young men who set fires on one island, repeatedly, as a macabre game, one that nearly snuffs out life there).

Tales of a Female Nomad
Rita Golden Gelman

A sudden and unexpected separation from her husband shocks Rita Golden Gelman into such a profound rethinking of her life that she ditches Western civilization entirely. Her purpose becomes living among indigenous peoples wherever she alights, far from the trappings of comfort and luxury. You’ll admire her calmly brazen casting off of all things modern. It may have begun as a lark; it evolved into a years-long way of life.

In Return To Glow: A Pilgrimage of Transformation in Italy, author Chandi Wyant doubles down on wounded beginnings, so to speak. Not only is she suffering through the collapse of her marriage, she’s recovering from a severe bodily trauma that has leeched her of her usual strength and vitality. Still, she sets out to hike the ancient pilgrimage route to Rome, the Via Francigena. You feel her fragility — and her determination — as she hits the trail.

If you love pilgrimages, if you love stories of destabilization and renewal, if you love Italy, if you love spirit and spunk . . . this book is for you.

Here is Chandi Wyant after coaxing her weakened body far beyond its capacity:

Spontaneously, a message comes to me: Drop along the trail the weights of the past in order to receive the gifts of today.

It becomes a mantra that stays with me as I continue on the leafy lane. I start to name the weights and metaphorically drop them as I walk.

My list, said aloud and witnessed by the oak trees, goes like this:

“My divorce. Okay, but what about my divorce? The idea that I’m flawed because I got a divorce. Do I have that idea? Okay, drop it on the trail anyway. The idea that it’s stuck in my body. Yes, that’s a good one. Drop it on the trail!”

I start to swing my trekking poles and point them at the weights I drop, which I picture as plate-sized dung heaps.

“Umm …what about …how I choose the wrong guys? Let’s drop that too, and Mutton Head. Good riddance!”

I stride on, down the car-less lane.

“I’m dropping the idea that I shouldn’t be in my power.”

“I’m dropping the fear of speaking my truth.”

Why do we do that? Play small?

“Drop it on the trail!”

(Buy Return To Glow here. Read more about Chandi Wyant and her current expatriate life here — especially if you want help sourcing your next trip to Italy.) (!)

We all have something we need to drop on the trail. Maybe we can’t envision a trek of any magnitude, but we can easily entertain walking. Daily. Without sound in our ears. Walking steadily forward — away from our anchors — dropping our own plate-sized dung burdens behind us, the ones we’ve been carrying too long.

Some intrepid souls strike out on grand journeys. Think Peace Pilgrim. For many millions more — for the rest of us — there is an enlivening daily practice to be encountered.

It may be a creative practice. It may be a walking meditation. It may be entering the silence. It may be journaling. It may be expressing love energy. It may be whatever you want it to be.

There are many ways to drop it on the trail. Your way is the best way.

One of my favorite ways is to sink into the footsteps of others, through reading. Like tagging along with Chandi Wyant as she step by step, breath by breath, bit by bit, reclaims her power.

Note: It only takes a small gesture
Note: C&R baby, C&R