- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cheryl Strayed, whose book about a life-defining trek along the rugged Pacific Crest Trail became a best-seller, asked Congress on Tuesday to protect those natural resources so future generations can find themselves in nature also.

Ms. Strayed, author of “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” was the guest of Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Democrat, for the president’s State of the Union address.

The annual speech has increasingly become a chance for the president and members of Congress to showcase their own goals through invitations.

Other high-profile guests of congressional Democrats included Susie Clayton, a two-time survivor of breast cancer who said President Obama’s health care law allowed her to get coverage, and Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University senior who has been carrying a mattress around campus to pressure the school to expel a student who she says raped her.

Republicans invited Cuban dissidents who denounced Mr. Obama’s warmer ties to the communist-ruled island and Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, who was released last fall after more than 200 days in a Mexican prison.

Ms. Strayed said that being inside the House chamber for the president’s remarks was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” but she also used her time in Washington to urge lawmakers to preserve wilderness.

“Throughout time, we have turned to the wilderness to tell us who we are,” she said. “We’re not just doing it for the wilderness itself, which is again a value I also honor, but we’re doing it for ourselves.”

She and Mr. Blumenauer met with lawmakers Tuesday as part of a Wilderness Society event. Mr. Blumenauer said he hoped members of Congress could learn some lessons from Ms. Strayed’s book, including overcoming struggles that at times may seem daunting and approaching one another with kindness.

“I think it’s that spirit that I’d like to see people ponder because we make it harder than it needs to be. It’s hard enough,” he said. “This to me is just sort of a signal of how this sort of approach can make a big difference here.”

Ms. Strayed said she never expected her book to lead her to the State of the Union or to Hollywood, where she walked the red carpet at the movie adaptation of “Wild,” but she hopes the story’s success can inspire others to be good stewards of the environment.

“I love it that there is also that message about how important it is that we think generations ahead and preserve those wild places,” she said. “When I was hiking the PCT, I thought so much of the people who came before me. I thought so much of the people who advocated for the trail, the politicians who put those pieces into law that would protect our national scenic trails.”

Thomas Whalen, a political historian and author at Boston University, said the attention guests can gain for their causes by attending the annual speech is akin to the publicity generated by Super Bowl commercials.

“The State of the Union has basically evolved into these big commercials. The ancillary benefits here are jumping off the coattails of the president and being brought into the limelight,” he said. “They’re going to bask in the reflective glow of the president and his agenda.”

Some guests are satisfied to be in the chamber and garner coverage, but others made even more use of their time in the spotlight to lobby for their concerns.

Steve Gleason, a former NFL player who attended the speech as a guest of Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, had an opportunity to speak with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell about ways to better help those living with debilitating diseases.

The former New Orleans Saints safety has been advocating for those who suffer from ALS as part of Team Gleason after his diagnosis of the neurodegenerative disease in 2011.

“Steve and the rest of Team Gleason have been super advocates for legislation that would help folks with disabilities to live fuller, more independent lives,” Mr. Vitter said in a statement. “I’m excited that he’ll be here in Washington to bring some more attention to ALS and our legislation.”

Mr. Gleason advocates for ALS patients to use technology to be able to live as independently and purposefully as possible, and he spoke with Ms. Burwell about how to make this technology accessible, said Clare Durrett, a spokeswoman for Team Gleason.

“Now, that technology is being challenged as a result of some policy revisions with Medicare. Steve is committed to effecting change for those who most need these devices to live,” she said. “While this is incredibly difficult for Steve to travel, it was too important to not go.”

Some celebrity guests become starstruck themselves. Ms. Strayed said she was just as excited to be in the same room as the president, first lady and other lawmakers who have served the country as she was to meet Hollywood A-listers.

“I admire so many great actors and actresses and directors and producers, and it’s really a thrill to meet those people, but politicians are rock stars to me too. I value them in the same way,” she said.

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