Discover more from Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar
And a Wild surprise!
I woke this morning to a text message from my beloved editor, Robin Desser, wishing me a happy anniversary. Ten years ago today my memoir Wild was published and I couldn’t let the day pass without sending a note of gratitude to all of you who read Wild, watched Wild, or in some way took it into your hearts and minds.
My favorite thing that’s happened over this past decade in relation to Wild is that I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many people who told me their own wild stories after they read mine. Sometimes their stories were about wilderness adventures or long, life-altering trips. Sometimes their stories were about grief and loss. Sometimes their stories were about painful divorces or struggles with addiction or the many ways we come to believe we can’t go on but do.
Whatever the stories have been, they’ve always felt like a gift to me. Thank you.
While I drank my coffee this morning, I searched my laptop for the first draft of Wild—the one I sent to Robin, who replied with a fourteen-page single-space, type-written letter of brilliant notes to contemplate as I revised the manuscript. I don’t know why exactly, but I wanted to look at the original document as it was first conceived and delivered, before I worked on it for a million more hours to make it into the book that was eventually published.
As I scanned the document, I came upon scenes that, for one reason or another, I cut. I stopped scanning and started reading when I came upon one passage—which I’m including for you below—about what I did right before I began my hike, after I left Minneapolis and stopped off in Portland for a few days before flying to California and the PCT. It made my heart both race and sink to read it; to remember a younger, more reckless version of myself. It made me shudder to think.
I don’t remember why I decided to cut that passage, but one must be ruthless in writing, so it went away—only to re-emerge here, all these years later.
And you thought books didn’t get a director’s cut.
This is all to say: thank you, dear readers who took my ten-year old book into your hands. Like really. Thank you.
If you’re a subscriber to the Dear Sugar Letters, you’ll get the March letter on the last day of the month. I think this one will feature a tarantula, but I’ve thought that before and it hasn’t worked out. I’ve been trying to tell the damn story of the tarantula in a Dear Sugar letter for years and I’ve not yet been able pull it off. It just so happens the tarantula in question lived in the apartments above the Rexall drugstore, which I write about in the not-in-Wild passage below, so perhaps that’s a sign that now is my time.
I’m wishing you all good things on this first day of spring. Stay wild. Keep walking.
I will too.
Cut from Wild
I had a few days to kill in Portland before catching my flight to Los Angeles and then the ride that would deliver me to the town of Mojave, near the PCT. I spent long afternoons talking to Rita and in the evenings while she waited tables I went to Powell’s Bookstore and poked around and hung out at places that had become familiar to me the summer before, drinking herbal iced tea and writing in my journal. I took a walk in Forest Park and drank wine in a tiny bar and went to see a band at a club, all the while circling around what I really wanted to do: call Joe.
So then I called Joe.
Being in Portland had made me nostalgic for the times I’d had with him the summer before, kicking around the city together, high on copious sex in the beginning and heroin by the end.
“Yes, yes, yes!” he said the way he always had the moment he heard my voice. He implored me to come over to see him, so I got into my truck and did.
It wasn’t because I was in love with him. We’d only spoken a few times in the six months since he’d visited me in Minneapolis and gotten me pregnant. It had been Paul I’d grieved in the previous months, despite the fact that it was me who’d shattered our marriage to bits. Paul who occupied the center of my broken heart. Paul who’d been my lover and companion, my best friend and anchor in the years after my mother died, when my life had become unmoored. But I was compelled by Joe, powerfully drawn to his bad boy ways, sparked if not to life, then to flame. What I felt for him was weightless and by virtue of its weightlessness it seemed when I was with him that everything else in my life weighed less too. As if the sincere, earnest, sentimental life I’d made with Paul was nothing but a funny dream. I knew, as I drove to see Joe that day, that it wasn’t so much him that I longed to visit, but rather the version of myself that he brought out in me—the one who was outlandish and bold, the wild, self-destructive woman who would do anything.
Joe still lived in the same apartment above an abandoned Rexall drugstore on Mississippi and Shaver, where I’d lived with him briefly the summer before. He was standing on the sidewalk when I pulled up, the same impish smile I’d fallen for on his face, though that was about the only thing that had remained the same. At a glance I could see he’d spiraled into heroin addiction. He’d always been thin, but now he was skeletal, his once perfect neon blue hair, now an uneven thicket of bleach blonde and dull brown. As soon as we embraced I knew I wasn’t going to be the cool, indifferent ex-girlfriend I’d thought I’d be. Instead we kissed deeply and immediately, the frank sexual attraction that had always coursed between us there as soon as we touched.
“Wanna go to the beach?” he asked excitedly.
“Tomorrow. I’ll get us a room. My treat.”
He laced his fingers gently into my hair and kissed me again and I thought maybe I did love him. Not the way I loved Paul, but the way I loved Joe.
“I missed you,” he whispered.
“I missed you too,” I whispered back.
“Come on,” he said, tugging on my hand, and I followed him up the front stairs and down the hallway, past the apartments of his building-mates and friends—three couples who’d met him a few months before I had—and past his own apartment too, number four, at the end of the hall, where I’d lived with him for a time. We continued out the back door to the rickety stairs that ran along the exterior of the building and sat down on the top step and kissed some more, my body pulsing to life with desire.
“Where is everyone?” I asked, pulling away from him after a while.
“Todd and Steph are at work. I don’t know about Chris and Michelle. Elise doesn’t live here anymore—did you know that? She and Ned broke up.”
“Elise,” I cooed. She’d been my favorite. Once we’d picked blackberries together in one of the wild, abandoned yards in the neighborhood and returned to Joe’s apartment and, much to everyone’s astonishment, baked a pie from scratch.
“You just missed Ned,” Joe said, lighting up a cigarette and pulling on it hard before exhaling. “He said to say hi.”
“Tell him hi too,” I said, feeling a tug of emotion that was touched with both tenderness and resentment. I thought of Ned and Elise and the others who lived in the Rexall building en mass as the lost children, though I’d never called them that out loud. It was they who’d introduced Joe to heroin, who’d taught him how to score it and smoke it and snort it and eventually to shoot it into his veins. And through him, they’d also taught me.
Like Joe, most of them were the artsy sons and daughters of white-collar professionals. At least nominally college-educated kids who’d had as children what I’d always longed to have—summer camp and ballet lessons and trips to the museum and zoo—who’d been raised right and turned out wrong. Together they’d transformed the four apartments in the Rexall building into a retro, post-punk communal wonderland, cluttering them artfully with ironic collections of Barbie dolls and images of the Virgin Mary and Betty Boop. In one room, abandoned keys dangled from the ceiling on fish wire; in another a life-size cardboard figure of Sid Vicious stood alongside another one of Marilyn Monroe. I’d spent evenings lounging around the various apartments with them, high and nodding out. I’d gone on walks with some of them and had heart to heart talks with them in the sober light of the early afternoons, about what we wanted or regretted or feared or hoped to do, about our parents and hometowns, our childhoods and misspent youths. But I’d never felt like any of them were actually my friends. It was always clear that they belonged to Joe; I was simply part of the deal.
“Are you a kindergarten teacher?” Michelle had inquired icily on the first night I met her.
“No,” I’d answered, blushing. “Why?”
“You look like one,” she’d replied and cackled. One bunch of her long pink dreadlocks were spun into an extravagant nest on top of her head and another bunch ran in ratty tendrils down her gorgeously emaciated back.
“What does a kindergarten teacher look like?” I asked indignantly, though of course I knew. A kindergarten teacher looked like me. In spite of my earnest efforts at sartorial post-punk cool, I’d failed to entirely shuck my sunny good girl persona. For this reason the punk rockers and alterna-hipsters hadn’t ever truly claimed me as one of their own. Never in my life had I been able to pull off ironic hair or shredded fishnet stockings or bowling shirts with name tags that said Stan.
Joe loved me anyway. Or, if not love, then whatever feeling it was that we shared when the two of us came together the year before and the spin my life was in picked up some serious speed. I could feel that something-like-love now, as I sat beside him on the back stairs of the Rexall building, watching the sky darken, making out as if we’d never stopped being a couple.
“What are these?” I asked sweetly, smoothing my hands over the scabs on his arms, though I knew.
“What’s this?” he asked, deflecting my question. He pushed my sleeve up and admired my new tattoo. I didn’t tell him Paul had one to match.
“Don’t you think this has gone far enough?” I asked him.
“This junkie thing,” I said. I reminded him of the degree he had from a fancy and rigorous school; of his once sure desire to become an editor of fiction; of the fact that no matter how deeply it seemed to him that he’d sunk into the junkie abyss, it had only been a year. The June before, he’d been the guy I met at Dot’s, the one who’d approached me to say that he liked my bracelet. The guy who’d only used in heroin a couple of times. The Professor, the lost children had already begun calling him, because he was so smart.
He was dumb now, I could see. Dumb the same way I had been the September before, when I’d been robbed by a man on the sidewalk below us and had fled Portland with Paul, leaving my truck on the street. When I’d thought, with ferocious sincerity, that friends who expressed concern over my heroin use just didn’t understand.
I had become that friend. The one who didn’t understand, who stood on the opposite side of a very wide gulf. Joe didn’t say this, but I could see it in his half-high eyes. He listened and nodded in agreement, while not actually agreeing to anything. He told me he’d recently been in the hospital after having almost died of an overdose. He said he planned to go east soon—to a clinic in New Hampshire—to get clean. I nodded and said good idea and yes, do to that, but beneath our words I could feel the merciless engine of junkiedom buzzing steadily along. It was both powerful and inert. It would not be denied. It would win every time.
As we talked, he drank a bottle of Mad Dog and smoked one GPC cigarette after another. We’d always joked the GPC on the box stood for gutter punk cigs because they were the cheapest you could buy. Every now and then I reached for the bottle of Mad Dog and took a disgusting swig. As I walked with him to the little convenience store a few doors down to get another bottle, I could feel the alcohol in my body, a dizzy swirl of pleasure that dulled the squalor all around me. I helped him drink the second bottle of Mad Dog in small sips and told him about my plan to hike the PCT for the next hundred or so days.
“I’ve got an idea. How about I go with you?” he asked and lit a cigarette.
We laughed together, absurd as it was, though then he squeezed my hand and we stopped laughing and our faces went serious and sad.
The sun went down and we went inside his apartment. It was exactly as it had been the summer before, only in the corner there was something new. Onto the lid of a wide wooden box he’d made into a frame of sorts and hung on the wall, he’d glued a half dozen strips of passport photos I’d taken of myself in Minneapolis a few days after Paul had dragged me back. Alongside them were the postcards I’d mailed him in those first weeks of our separation, upon which I’d written sexy, evocative, half-true things. I stood examining them as he readied his heroin, and then I turned and watched him stick the needle into the flesh near his anklebone. He did that, he explained, because he’d recently had abscesses in both of his arms and now he had to find a fresh vein.
As I watched him, something crept into me like a vine wrapping itself tightly around everything I’d just said to him out on the stairs. The PCT and the fancy college, getting clean and starting anew, all those words smothered themselves and died inside of me.
“Give me some,” I said in a flash, aching with what felt like need.
Before he stuck the needle into the vein that rimmed the inside of my right anklebone, he only asked me once if I was sure.
We slept together that night too high to fuck. I woke in the same bed in the same bedroom in the same way as I had every morning when I’d slept with him the year before: in an astonished dread that what had happened the night before had actually happened. I looked around the room, implicated by every banal thing that surrounded me. The lamp and the table, a book that had fallen and rested now belly down and open, its flimsy pages buckled on the floor. I went to the bathroom and washed my face and sobbed for a fast few breaths into my hands.
When Joe woke we packed his car and drove to the ocean. A trip to the beach had seemed like a good idea the night before, a sweet way to say goodbye, but now I regretted having agreed to it. Still, I remained silent, while Joe called to reserve a room. I waited for him outside on the ramshackle stairs while he shot up inside. We drove together searching for things to say, the flirty, animated conversation we’d had the evening before quashed entirely by my remorse over having used heroin and his relentless need for more. He couldn’t go long without it without getting sick, so as soon as we reached Newport he left me on the beach to find a bathroom that he could lock himself inside of to shoot up.
I walked the beach, waiting despondently for Joe, and then the ocean was so beautiful I forgot about waiting and I walked along the edge of the water aching for Paul. I crouched and wrote his name in the sand with my finger, made a heart around it, and stood watching it until the water came and washed it away. I’d willingly divorced him a couple months before, hoping that it was right thing to do, and yet now that I’d done it I was sure I’d lost the very best thing that I’d had.
I wrote CHERYL in the sand and walked away before it disappeared.
When Joe returned, we found a spot on a bluff overlooking the ocean and sat huddled together talking. I cried as I spoke, practically begging him to get clean. The heat I’d felt between us the evening before had been neutralized entirely, replaced by a sisterly love that wanted nothing from him other than that he would live and thrive. He reminded me of my mother in her last days—her battered-looking arms, her mind drifting in and out of awareness from the morphine—as if he was a young dying man. He was.
He listened, moved that I cared, but unmoved to change. After a couple of hours, we checked into our room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel so he could shoot up again. The Sylvia Beach is famous for its rooms named after authors, each decorated in its namesake’s honor. There’s the Emily Dickinson room and the Dr. Seuss. The Herman Melville and the Alice Walker. When he’d called that morning, we’d booked the last room that was available: the Edgar Allan Poe.
After Joe shot up and vomited, we lay together platonically on the gothic bed, surrounded by red velvet and black wallpaper. An ax painted with fake blood hung like a pendulum above us. A large stuffed raven sat perched in the corner. I read “The Purloined Letter” out loud to Joe from a collection of Poe’s writings that I’d found on a shelf, but he was too high to listen so I stopped and continued reading it silently to myself without him noticing.
When I finished, I saw that he’d passed out. I reached over and felt his pulse to make sure he still had one, then covered him with a blanket. Though all day I’d been sick with regret—over having used heroin the night before, over having reunited with Joe—I realized now that doing each one last time had perhaps been precisely what I needed to do in order to strip them of their allure.
The allure was stripped.
So was I, along with the notions I’d begun to have about myself since I’d decided to hike the PCT. That I was strong and clear-headed and capable. That I was safe from heroin’s sinister reach. That I would hike the trail and then be back on track again, with my life and my literary dreams. I went downstairs and drank cup after cup of mint tea while sitting in a rocking chair in the common room of the hotel, feeling my certainty unravel inside of me. I watched the ocean through the window until it was so dark I couldn’t see it anymore.
This time tomorrow, I thought over and over, the words like a rope I could grip. This time tomorrow I’ll be on on my way to the Pacific Crest Trail.
I have exciting news to share: You can now read Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar in the new Substack app for iPhone.
With the app, you’ll have a dedicated Inbox for my Substack and any others you subscribe to. New posts will never get lost in your email filters, or stuck in spam. Longer posts will never cut-off by your email app. Comments and rich media will all work seamlessly. Overall, it’s a big upgrade to the reading experience.
The Substack app is currently available for iOS. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can join the Android waitlist here.