I can’t imagine losing my mother. It’s not that I can’t fathom the possibility, or that I’m particularly dependent on her. I actually think one of the greatest gifts my mom gave me was the ability to rely on myself. All those lectures and lessons floating around in the backseat of our minivan, behind the shoulders of my brothers, resulted in a person who took in at least part of those lectures, and part of those lessons. But I don’t know what it will feel like when the person who brought me into this world, the one whose belly I grew to form inside, eventually leaves this place all at once. If it will change the way I look at a dark sky, or shift daily thought patterns ever so slightly when that kind of umbilical cord to the physicality of my existence is cut.
But the older I get, the more morbidly I think about how her last weeks will look, with all the spattered phrases in and around the silence squeezing tightly to those days. I then recall our trivial gripes and escapable disagreements through the years, as we just had last month when we argued over the phone about the youth-led fight for democracy still happening in Hong Kong. It was both her birthday, and my parents’ wedding anniversary, and I felt bad after the fact that I couldn’t see past myself. Good parents have a weird way of making themselves invisible, even on their only day. But every time they ask me a question they should know for sure, or text me odd tidbits about their arthritic bones in the cold weather, or I notice the smallest signs of them aging during every trip home, I think about them dying, and I think about a part of myself dying with them, too.
In Wild, 2012’s breakout New York Times best seller, Cheryl Strayed writes an account of her solo hike over ninety-four days on the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 1995, spurred by a confounding divorce, heroin habit, and the subsequent scattering of her family after the death of her mother four years prior. Strayed was twenty-six years old when she set off, an orphan without any blood ties left in her world. She hiked for over 1,100 miles, from Mojave, CA to the border of Oregon and Washington at the Bridge of the Gods, with a few detours in between. She spent the first eight days on the trail without seeing a single human being; just out, as she says, in the great alone.
When her mother died, Strayed was only twenty-two, the same age as Bobbi when she gave birth to Cheryl. “She was going to leave my life at the same moment that I came into hers, I thought,” and four years, seven months, and three days later, it became her beacon of steely resolve, if not hope, to manage her troubles and hike the PCT, in order to get back to the person her mother raised her to be. At the time when she noticed the guidebook that piqued her interest while in the checkout line at an REI, Strayed was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from her husband, working as a waitress, and “as low and mixed-up as [she’d] ever been,” pregnant with the kind of tumor that grows within when forty-nine days after diagnosis is all you get when a year was promised.
The PCT, it said, was a continuous wilderness trail that went from the Mexican border in California to just beyond the Canadian border along the crest of nine mountain ranges. That distance was a thousand miles as the crow flies, but the trail was more than double that. Traversing the entire length of the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, the PCT passes through national parks and wilderness areas as well as federal, tribal, and privately held lands; through deserts and mountains and rain forests; across rivers and highways.
It sounded to her like the out-of-body experience she needed to reignite the parts of herself that had been leveled in the gas fire of her mother’s passing.
Strayed grew up in Northern Minnesota, and survived a large stretch of her childhood on forty acres free of electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing, and much of the book captures a humble sense of debt to living off the land, with the natural air of Midwestern backwoods, and that daily draft gliding in over Lake Superior. Her writing emanates a light from the page, not blinding, but exceedingly steady, and even through terror, is always there. It is savagery dropped in a glass of Minnesota nice, the kind of easygoing manner undercut by her love of Wilco and brief addiction to dope, held through the same aspirational Minnesotan perspective that gave us the F. Scott Fitzgeralds, the Bob Dylans, and Coen Brothers’ of this country’s culture in their respective times.
Strayed’s second book, Tiny Beautiful Things, was comprised of essays, written between 2010-2012, from her ongoing Rumpus column Dear Sugar (which is now a podcast). In it, she subverted the form of an advice column to the platform of literature, that turned the act of full disclosure into a form of art—like an honest and maternal PostSecret, filtered through the frostbitten panic and wisdom of her writing. The collection, from beginning to end, can be summed up by the idea that things happen to us, but it’s in how we choose to respond to those things, and not just react, that dictate the course we eventually take. She became known for a brand of radical sincerity that sought to make the ordinary things we don’t tell each other feel extraordinary, and famously told a young writer in one of her classic Dear Sugar entries to just “write like a motherfucker.”
There’s a realness to Strayed that steeps her words with believable weight, a sort of punk aesthetic that balances the more Zen ideas of finding oneself. And so it goes that by the sheer cojones of her solo hike on the 1000-plus miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, she commands more attention than a jaunt with gelato through the seaside towns of Eat, Pray, Love, one closer to that which we afford easily to Jon Krakauer’s acclaimed Into the Wild. Though she set out with life-centering pursuit, she was honest about every naive intention she’d had about the pain of hiking alone along the way:
I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips.
Although, she hadn’t yet considered the side effects of persistent focus on our most primitive needs.
Like the book, the music in the movie comes through with a clear tone in the timber and the timbre of Americana, filled with many of what I imagine are the red-blooded songs of Cheryl’s youth. Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” was recorded in 1967, the year of Strayed’s birth, and Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” shortly thereafter. Wings’s “Let ‘Em In” and The Hollies’s “The Air That I Breathe” build up a soundtrack that mixes grit into a paint can of nostalgia, hovering in the headspace needed to keep moving, while trying actively to release painful things back to the soil, back to the earth.
But if the screenplay, written by Nick Hornby, excised certain parts of the book—an older sister here, a step-father there—to better fit the format of film, the same effort could have gone into the structure of its storytelling, to better preserve Strayed’s source material and its cosmically wandering mood.
I think if it had focused more on the tracks of its solitary star, the viewer would have been given a greater chance to settle into the enormity of the undertaking, and see how wild it really was to earn the epiphany Strayed brings her readers to by the closing of the book’s back jacket. The film doesn’t fully flip the frustrations, and digressions, and failure to light the circular routes to its final line in a way that still felt worthy of all the exhausting while. It falls shy of “the glory and the ghosts” of transcendence that kick in when traveling for days at a time without speaking to another person, or the palpable trail bonds with Tom, or Greg, or Stacy, and Doug, who “seemed like someone I’d always know even if I never saw him again.”
Witherspoon is an able actress, who as much as she’s tried to avoid the label as of late, is likable on screen. There are glimpses of how good she could have been in the role, but too often, segmented versions of the character break any momentum she’s able to build. There is too much background information interspersed in the book that appears as flashback, playing jumpy in its visual technique. When Gaby Hoffman and Laura Dern are a small part of your supporting cast, it’s expected that the viewer will linger on their brief scenes that pierce in and out, over and over, from the bends of the trail.
Moments meant to amble are forced into compression, squeezing out the oxygen needed for interactions to breathe, like Strayed’s encounter with a five-year-old boy who sings “Red River Valley” to her in the middle of the day. There isn’t sufficient room for the lyrical associations of drawn-out passages to settle in the synapses of our brains:
What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done?…What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?
The thing that the medium of motion picture really does do better than the book, though, is to help place us in the vastness and the dryness, the whiteness and the wilderness, of being out on the PCT. Jean-Marc Vallée, who last year directed another Southern charmer’s career-pivot in Dallas Buyers Club, does his best with broad vistas to be “squarely in the heart of it, of the real California, with its relentless wind and Joshua trees and rattlesnakes lurking in places I had yet to find.” In one scene, Cheryl is sitting in a camping chair on a grassy knoll at Golden hour, talking with a fellow female hiker about their reasons for trekking the trail. “My mother used to say something that drove me nuts,” Cheryl pauses in the glow of the horizon line. “There’s a sunrise and a sunset every day, and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty.” The power of being beneath giant trees and unmoveable mountains, under a fire-lit sky or a moon with the seeming ability to follow, is that they remind us of how much more there is to the world than our own imagined problems. That there are lives out there we’ll never know, and the constant balance to the whir of modern life in the idea that the people who have passed before us nevertheless looked up at the very same things, holed up inside themselves with the very same questions.
We must deal with reality as it exists, but I think we also must be able to push aside social constructs, all human constructions over time—of capitalism and careers, or the orderly structures of school and suburban desire—if we really are dealing with the heart of human matter. It is from here that we are able to reduce down to the essence of existence in the center of everything. In simplicity there is truth, and being out in wide open spaces often has a way, like high-speed rail, to bring us back to simple things.
“We save ourselves,” Ms. Witherspoon said in an interview with the New York Times. “Every woman knows it. Every man knows it. You look up. Nobody’s coming to the rescue. It’s a universal story. But it’s revolutionary in the way that a woman is allowed to tell it.” She notes that “this’ll be the first movie, I believe, I can’t recall, but that stars a woman that at the very end has no money, no man, no parents, no job, no opportunities, and it’s a happy ending. How important, how needing of that, are we?”
In the personal photos Ms. Strayed has shared of her time on the trail, you can see a person lost behind the eyes at the beginning of her odyssey. Though not overt, there is the same sense I had that one of my favorite teachers in high school might have been slowly sinking in the doldrums of her life, that she might have been the woman with the hole in her heart. The happy in the ending doesn’t come with the reversal of any fate that set her down the PCT, but from the revelations she confronted about her own life and the way she was behaving in it that changed the way and speed with which she thought, when she walked her way from California to forty miles east of Portland, where she still lives today with her husband and two kids. “This exact trip is not for everyone, but I do feel that journeying is a really important part of our existence, and I think that there are key times to do that in your youth.” Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so too is our suffering.
Krakauer writes in Into the Wild that, “Alex got stuck on things. He always had to know the absolute right answer before he could go on to the next thing.” In a bit of wishful karmic transmission, Strayed writes at the end of her book that, “I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true.” Wild isn’t a story about man versus nature, and wrestling livestock to prove our dominant worth. It comes from a less egoic place, about a woman accepting where she fits within the almighty expanse of the universe, and how privileged we are to continue to exist in it, in a way that makes the world feel both bigger and smaller than we previously thought.
It was raining in Los Angeles the day I saw the film, a much-needed reprieve in a California year of exceptional drought. “We think human beings know so many things on Earth, but it stops raining, and here we are.” I stared over at the movie poster I had taken from a table out front, that now sat limp in the passenger seat of my car. So much for that. Nature doesn’t care about our problems, I remembered. Mother Nature is a ruthless bitch, and continues on her own terms, as she always has, even if we veer off badly from bridled paths or roll right along the orbit of the ride. Whether we’ve lost a parent, or a partner, or a faultless friend, the eternal axis of a spinning globe helps us realize that we are both by ourselves and completely not, that nothing means anything, and yet it’s everything we’ve got. Maurice Sendak says, “Let the wild rumpus start.” I say, really though, why not?