The Mark Blog

By the Numbers

Last week for work, I drove from Ventura to San Francisco and back, in a time span of less than thirty hours. On the hundreds of rolling, mostly empty miles of Highway 101, I listened to Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir Wild. I’d heard good things about it from reliable sources even before it was released. Not surprisingly, I was hooked. I became agitated when I had to stop for gas or the bathroom. I used cruise control. I survived on what I had in the car—a lone package of dried cranberries—for the entire northbound leg. When my phone rang, I explained, “Um, I have ten minutes left of this chapter.”

In workshop last week, our instructor Antoine said that the reader shouldn’t have to do too much math to place a story in time. It makes sense that a book might require a little arithmetic on occasion, when it’s important. (How many days ago did she die? How old is he if he was born in X year?) But ultimately, it’s the fault of the book and its reticence if the reader must constantly make calculations. (Who’s so-and-so, and how are they related to the protagonist?) As Antoine also said, the aim of a story is to invite interpretation, not speculation.

In Wild, Cheryl’s journey begins in the middle, six weeks into her hike, then moves back to the “real” beginning with the death of her mother four years earlier. The story is narrated from a retrospective first-person point-of-view. It weaves together reflection and attitude with action. It moves fluidly through time, with her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail told mostly chronologically, interspersed with flashbacks. Reflection and scene are bound together, inherent in the voice and tone of the narrative.

On my return drive southbound, in the dark of the 101, I checked the mileage on my Prius's glowing odometer as Cheryl gained mileage on the PCT. In the heart of San Luis County, my car reached 100,000 miles. I’m not a car person, nor a mathematician, but for whatever reason it felt important to me that I see those digital numbers click from 99,999 to six digits.

Around the same time, I discovered that I’d unwittingly downloaded only the first of two portions of the audio edition of Wild. I may have been inappropriately elated at the prospect of listening to several more hours of the book later that week.

I reached my destination late, perhaps a little bleary-eyed, forced to listen to the radio for part of the way. But when I stepped out of the car, I felt like I could really see the stars. Midnight Friday was clear and warm, almost windless, and I could not count all the stars, because they multiplied—white—in the endless space above my eyes.