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Conversations with Cheryl Strayed

A perk of MFA programs is opportunity to meet inspiring, smart, talented writers. In April, Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, visited Colorado State University (I graduate with my MFA this week!). Jayla Rae, a nonfiction MA student, introduced Strayed to 500 people who attended her reading, and struggled to find the right thing to say.

Last summer, I volunteered to introduce Cheryl Strayed for
Colorado State University’s reading series, and I did this without thinking,
and without understanding what it would be like to introduce a famous author.

 Between summer and April, Cheryl’s popularity grew and grew
and I didn’t know what to say besides the obvious: she’s a champion creative
nonfiction writer. As we held cocktails at the party, the two of us talked
about our connections to Ashland, Oregon and how she loves Portland and how I
do, too, and how she used to have a braid as long as mine when she was younger,
worn similarly to the side. I had someone snap a photo of us. I uploaded it
instantly. She signed my copy of Tiny
Beautiful Things. And then she was on to talking with other students, and I
missed my chance.

 So here, I will tell you the thing I didn’t tell Cheryl
Strayed when I could have. Here I will admit my blasphemous inaction
considering the culture I am surrounded by in Colorado: I’ve had a backpack
hanging on my bedroom wall for years now, with tags still attached.

 This backpack has even moved from walls in Oregon to
Colorado, its intended purpose for an outdoor course in Montana that I never
took. I even have gear. The backpack hangs, the gear collects dust, and I have
no idea why it’s placed like a trophy on my wall when I’ve never taken the time
to break it in. But what Cheryl Strayed does not realize is that she makes me
feel as though I am capable of
breaking it in. And even though I don’t have a “plan” as of now, I know it’s
something I want to do someday soon. Solo. Romania?

 I saw her a month later at the AWP Conference in
Minneapolis, briefly. We snapped another photo. I chickened out again, because
I’m sure she’s heard it before: Oh, you want to go on a solo-backpacking trip after
reading Wild? But that’s not quite

 I now want to seize the thing I’ve always wanted to try—backpacking—because of reading Wild.
 Where are my scissors? I’m snipping these damn tags off.

Bio: Jayla Rae Ardelean holds an MA in creative nonfiction from
Colorado State University. Her two dachshunds are the loves of her life, but
literary geniuses are welcome.