Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
“I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back into the person I used to be – strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way.”
In 1995, at the age of twenty-six, Cheryl Strayed had managed to turn her life upside down. After her mother’s early death from cancer when Strayed was twenty-two, her family fell apart, she got divorced from the man she had married when she was only nineteen, and she was regularly doing heroin with a new boyfriend in Portland, leading to an accidental pregnancy. In an effort to get her life back on track, Strayed decided, almost on a whim, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2650 mile path that stretches from Mexico to Canada. Her trip began in Mojave, California, and ended in Cascade Locks on the Oregon/Washington border, bypassing the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the middle section, a distance of about 1100 miles.
Strayed devotes a few chapters at the beginning of the book to her childhood and the events that led her to the trail, but she largely avoids falling into the trap of front-loading her back story. Instead, much of it is dispersed throughout the book, coming up at relevant moments in her ruminations along the trail. While we find out in the beginning that she fell out with her step-father after her mother’s death, we don’t find out why until about halfway through the book. This means that we get to the meat of hike and the PCT experience more quickly than in many memoirs.
Jean-Marc Vallée’s film adaptation takes this structure even farther, relegating almost the entire backstory to flashbacks while Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) is on the trail. A large portion of the film’s runtime consists of these memories, along with a generous helping of voice-over. Vallée also resequences and consolidates events and characters, and omits others entirely. Strayed’s step-father and sister are among those who have been deleted from the story, along with a large number of the other hikers. Major incidents are consolidated for added drama, while several minor characters are combined in the guise of Ed the trail angel. Other items, such as Strayed’s famous Bob Marley t-shirt, appear in the film merely as a nod to the book, without surrounding context or events. However, most of these changes have relatively little impact on the story.
Strayed went into her trip woefully unprepared, a fact that begins to become clear to her from her first day on the trail, and which only grows more apparent from there as she struggles to carry a pack she can barely lift. As she gains some experience, she does wise up a little bit, opting to bypass the snowed-in Sierra Nevada Mountains. The book strikes a decent balance between cautionary tale and inspiration; Strayed doesn’t undersell the importance of the experience she had on the PCT, but she also readily admits to the situations where her lack of knowledge and preparation could have cost her life. Hopefully those who are inspired by her trip will take her mishaps as a cue to be better prepared themselves.
Overall, both the book and the film it inspired are much more about Strayed’s personal journey than the hike itself, and Wild certainly doesn’t purport to be any kind of guidebook, for all the mimicry it has spawned. We see this reflected in the film’s understated cinematography, which spends much of its screen time on Reese Witherspoon, and lavishes relatively little attention on the dramatic landscapes of the trail. The most recurring feature of the natural landscape is the fox that represents Strayed’s deceased mother. Unfortunately this conceit, which is touching in its single appearance in the book, is overdone in the film. The movie similarly manages to stamp the life out of other powerful and affecting scenes, most notably the death of her mother’s horse in a flashback.
Though much has been made of Strayed’s recklessness as a solitary hiker, far from being in danger most of the time, other hikers on the PCT readily helped one another out, and as a woman alone Strayed actually found that she experienced more kindness from strangers who were worried about her. This comes through clearly even in the film, where several such events are omitted. Most (but not all) of the dangers came from the trail itself (snakes, bears, rough terrain, snow) or her own lack of preparation (not carrying enough water, buying boots a size too small) rather than other people. Strayed’s account of her trip is actually a great testament to the sense of community that has grown up amongst PCT hikers, and those who live and work at the outposts along the trail. Strayed is a strong writer who can evoke both the day-to-day grind of trying to walk up to twenty miles under a heavy load, and also the charm and magic of the culture than surrounds this undertaking.
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