The Trouble with Women's Adventure Memoirs

Before I left on my solo cross-country bicycle ride across the United States in 2011, I did my research. I purchased a good bike, a set of waterproof bags, and the best bicycle route maps that money can buy, from a wonderful organization called Adventure Cycling Association. I tried, in vain, to get the hang of fixing a flat tire on my bike.  I interviewed other cross country cyclists, and... I read some cycling memoirs.

Well, I attempted to read some cycling memoirs.  

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"Before I left on my cross-country bicycle ride... I attempted to read some cycling memoirs."

I could list them here, but I don't want to blame the books.  After all, you might love them, and you should.

The trouble wasn't really with the books, it was with me.  I wanted something different, especially from the female authors.  They'd cycled tens of thousands of miles, through places so foreign they may as well be another planet: India, Africa, and the salt deserts of South America.  These women had experienced no shortage of pain, pleasure, adventure and excitement... and yet, their books were boring to me.

I didn't want to hear about the mileage, or quaint descriptions of "interesting characters" they met along the way, or the word "lovely" preceding any landmark, ever.  (The word "lovely" has no place in an adventure memoir, and this decree is coming from a young woman who says the word on a weekly basis.)

The story I wanted to hear wasn't "lovely". I wanted the tale that these intrepid women would tell me behind closed doors, late at night, after a few drinks.  I wanted to hear about their daily wrestling matches with fear, about their internal struggles and bad decisions and painful lessons.  I wanted to know how they dealt with their periods while traveling, or if they were ever tempted by romance on the road.  I wanted to know everything that was indecent for them to put in a book for the whole wide world to read.

My bicycle journey, which turned into a 5,000 mile study in overcoming fear, was one of the best things I've ever done in my life. I returned to college with so many transformative moments under my belt, it'd be years before I'd begin processing them. That final semester, a book entered my world. The perfect book.

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"That final semester, a book entered my world... The perfect book."

 

Cheryl Strayed's shockingly candid memoir of her solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail changed me.  Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail blazed a new, breath-taking, engaging trail through the otherwise drab forest of polite books. There are probably other contenders that came before, but Wild was the first book that I held in my hands and laughed with sheer delight.  She'd done it!  She'd told the story I wanted to hear!  And how, how had she said these things about people who were still alive?  How had she given herself permission to tell such an ugly truth, and still hold her head high in public? 

But of course she held her head high. Her book swept the nation like wildfire, leaving piles of both offended critics and thrilled readers in its wake. Wild sold millions of copies, was published in other languages, inspired Oprah to revive her national book club (Oprah told the New York Times, "I love this book so much and want to talk about it so much, I knew I had to reinvent my book club"), and was eventually made into a motion picture starring the marvelous Reese Witherspoon. The year after the film was released, PCT officials received ten times more requests for trail permits than usual. This controversial increase in PCT hikers has been dubbed "The Wild Effect."

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"Strayed's physical accomplishments are, compared to other PCT hikers, pretty darn lame."

Why was Wild such a success? Because it's brutally honest and exquisitely written.  That's it.  Strayed's physical accomplishments are, compared to other PCT hikers, pretty darn lame. She hiked a fraction of the trail, had the wrong size shoes, and was slower than almost everyone she met.  But, she can tell one hell of a story.

And that's the point.  In a memoir, it's not enough to tell the readers what you did.  Let's be real: what you did was boring.  For example, I pedaled 5,000 miles across the country. I spent most of the day, every day, pedaling my bicycle. It's monotonous.  There's not much to write home about.

But when you tell the whole truth, there's plenty to write about.  I had such bad period cramps one day that I gave up on cycling altogether, and resigned myself to lying on a picnic table near Sisters, Oregon, hallucinating that someone would walk over and hand me some Advil. In Montana, I had to scare off a deranged man claiming to be a "Russian Mystic" who insisted that I accompany him to dinner. In Wyoming, I nearly cheated on my boyfriend with a dashing young hippie who looked for food in dumpsters. In Colorado, my campsite was infested with naughty teenagers who used my tent for target practice. On and on, all the way to Florida, the strangest and most wonderful things kept happening to me, but always my internal struggles far outweighed the physical ones. And that, I believe, is the truth for most intrepid explorers. 

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"We need more candid tales of women overcoming fear and societal norms and their own self-sabotage."

When I first read Wild, I cheered and announced that I no longer needed to write my own memoir.  The book I'd been longing for was now a reality, and there was nothing more to do but sing the praises of Cheryl Strayed.  I soon came to my senses, though, and realized: one is not enough.  What worked for a sexually-confident women like Ms. Strayed might not work for other (more paranoid) ladies like me. We need more candid tales of women overcoming fear and societal norms and their own self-sabotage. We need more of these memoirs from brave authors who are willing to bare all and tell us what really happened. 

The "Me Too" movement on social media has brought this topic of "what really happened" into the spotlight. Women are being invited to tell each other, and everyone, their personal stories of struggling with boundaries, expectations, vulnerability, and strength. The more we understand what we're up against, and how we can overcome harassment, the more women will feel empowered to strike out on their own. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've gotta go write a kick-ass adventure memoir.

Love and Happy New Year!

Olivia, future author of Miss America: How I Got Over My Fear of Boys By Biking Across the Country

For candid interviews with other amazing female cyclists, Click Here.