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Following her footsteps

Like hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, author Cheryl Strayed's life moves in switchbacks.

Months before she first visited Ashland in the summer of 1995, she was an overburdened, unprepared young waitress who planned to mourn the loss of her mother by slogging the narrow PCT alone, from the simmering Mojave Desert in California to the more merciful "green tunnel" of Oregon.

Since those strained and lonely days, Strayed has written a best-selling memoir about her journey, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," in which she devotes a chapter to Ashland.

More than 225,000 hardbound copies of the book were printed within three months of its release last March. Actress Reese Witherspoon is making a movie based on the book with a screenplay written by Nick Hornby, one of Strayed's favorite writers. And Oprah calls to invite Strayed to her house.

Perhaps more telling of Strayed's success is that people want to follow in her footsteps: on the arduous trail and to the Ashland places she lovingly describes.

Surprisingly, despite the passing decades and life-changing rewards, Strayed still has vivid memories of Ashland, the trail town she first picked as the ending point to escaping an unraveling life.

"Ashland was my mecca," Strayed says Wednesday from her home in Portland, the day after the paperback version of "Wild" was released. "I had my favorite jeans and a new black lace bra shipped to me there so I didn't have to wear the same trail clothes. That says a lot about Ashland."

She remembers the layout of the Ashland Hostel and that her bed was tucked inside a "secret room" — a former closet in the 1910 house — accessed through the women's dorm room with stacks of bunk beds.

She wonders if the Ashland Food Co-op is still the community gathering place for the "hippy/anarchist/punk rock/funked-out artist continuum." And if the building across the street — the then Buffalo Music Hall inside the Historic Ashland Armory — still has events, like the Jerry Garcia CD Retrospective she attended Aug. 11, 1995, two days after the Grateful Dead singer died.

It was there, in the Armory's Great Hall, near a low wall that still outlines the bar area, that she met the man she calls "Jonathan" in the book. She used a pseudonym since she couldn't track him down to ask his permission to use his real name.

In "Wild," she writes about the romantic, 22-hour date she had with the curly haired man who lived in a "luxury," heated tent on an organic farm outside of Jacksonville.

Last spring, Strayed returned to Ashland to talk at Bloomsbury Books. "I was nervous he was going to be there," she says during the phone interview. "I was scanning the group for a handsome man in his 30s before I realized I should have been looking for a graying, middle-aged man."

Times have changed. Today, the wife and mother of two promotes her other bestseller, "Tiny Beautiful Things," based on her snappy "Dear Sugar" advice column on TheRumpus.net while Time magazine and other publications run glowing accounts of her work.

Still, Strayed sounds giddy, perhaps like the 26-year-old she was in 1995, when she talks about Ashland.

"I'm hoping they film some of the movie in Ashland," she says. "Wouldn't that be great? The reason I picked Ashland to finish my journey is because I had heard it was a nice place."

Her original plans to retire her 50-pound backpack named "Monster" in Ashland changed when she had to jumped off the trail in the Sierra Nevada because of heavy snowfall. She hitched a ride north and then decided to walk 500 trail-miles through Oregon to reach the aptly named Bridge of the Gods that spans the Columbia River, linking Oregon to Washington state.

As this year's hikers prepare to tackle all or part of the PCT, which Strayed delineates as "two feet wide and 2,663 miles long," there is chatter among PCT veterans about the author and the book. Opinions toggle between positive and negative. Will "Wild's" popularity translate to crowds on the remote trail?

On one PCT listserv, a man with the trail name "MendoRider-Hiker" concluded that since "Strayed had a miserable hike," it would discouraged people, while a few others confessed that they are preparing to traverse the length of the trail because the book inspired them.

Some seasoned backpackers cited the Bill "Bryson bump" of hikers on the Appalachian Trail since his book, "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail," came out in 1998 and that more Americans are requesting "pilgrim's passports" to proceed on Spain's Camino Santiago de Compostela because of Emilio Estevez's popular 2010 movie, "The Way," which starred Estevez's father, Martin Sheen.

A man shaking off the crowd concern reminded listserv readers that amateurs may attempt the journey, but "more people have summited Mount Everest than have finished a successful thru hike of the PCT."

Finally, acknowledging that perhaps everyone who has endured a sizeable part of the trail has a heroic story to tell, one man lamented: "The only difference that I can truly see is that the chances of any of us getting a book deal just went completely down the drain."

With or without "Wild," there will be more people on the epic trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada, says Jack Haskel of the Pacific Crest Trail Association. That is because the number of hikers has increased each year since the trail was completed in 1993 and, like last year, favorable weather is predicted.

Those who cheer the idea of a "Wild"-inspired crowd live in Ashland.

Katharine Flanagan of the Ashland's Visitor Bureau is one of the book's countless boosters.

"Highlighting Ashland along her journey, Cheryl underscores the inherent draw that Ashland has had to many different people, over many years, for many different reasons," says Flanagan. "On a personal note, I absolutely loved the book, a vision quest to aspire to that resonated with me."

Annie Hoy of the Ashland Food Co-op says that people gathered around her after she spoke at the Indiana Cooperative Summit in November to tell her how famous the Ashland Co-op has become because of the book.

Hoy recalls that 18 years ago, when Strayed spent her last $2.29 on a bottle of organic lemonade, the Co-op's expanded deli, kitchen and eating area didn't exist. That part of the building was a grass lawn where people hung out.

"This has always been a center of social dialogue, a place to talk about how to change the world," says Hoy. "It's a magnetic center of Ashland."

Annie Dunn and Sid Taylor, the new owners of the Ashland Hostel, say people are curious about the place that afforded Strayed her first warm shower after two weeks and a room with a "real actual bed,", as she refers to it in the book.

The ceiling of that L-shaped room, which slants down at a height of about 5-feet-3-inches, almost touches the top of Dunn's head. "It's hard to image there were three single beds in here," Dunn says, gesturing to the sunlight alcove that is now a private room — called "Secret" — with only one full-size bed.

Hidden around the corner from the door is a short, tight space where Strayed blissfully slept, a stark contrast to her ascetic nights camping on the trail.

"My time in Ashland was incredibly pleasurable," Strayed says. "I fit in there. A woman massaged my feet. Had I not completely been out of money, I would have stayed."

She pauses. "But then the nice people of Ashland would have had to take care of me." Then she laughs.

Times have changed.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com. News assistant and staff librarian Nick Morgan contributed to this story.