Wild, a new film based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir, brings out the trail blazers—and the haters

The Reese Witherspoon film has stirred controversy among expert hikers, but one writer explains how the Pacific Crest Trail helped his bipolar wife

To learn more about the Pacific Crest Trail, visit www.pcta.org.

It’d been over a day since we last saw anybody, which might have not been so strange except that Amy—my hiking partner, and wife—told me Jefferson Park gets busy in the summer. And yet here it was July and there was no one besides us, and it looked like a snowstorm was brewing.

It was 2003 and we were on the fifth day of what was supposed to be a 10-day backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon. We weren’t sure we should continue on; Amy’s feet were blistered and we weren’t making the kind of miles we’d planned.

The view was gorgeous here in the park’s expansive meadows with the kind of serene wilderness one rarely gets to see. Up ahead on our trail was Mount Jefferson, the second highest mountain in Oregon. It was covered in snow. We weren’t sure if we should retrace our steps to find a road and a car to hitchhike back to town in, or push on. At least on the other side of the mountain we knew we’d find a resort where there’d be people and cars, but could we make it over the mountain and not get lost?

That trip was not just our first foray into backpacking—it was the first time either of us had set foot on the PCT, a 2,663 mile trail that begins at the Mexican-Californian border and ends in Canada, passing through Oregon and Washington along the way.

Since then, the trail and backpacking have become an important part of Amy’s life. It’s her passion and her hobby, but also it’s turned into a sort of self-prescribed therapy for her bipolar disorder.

It’s also the subject, at least in part, of a new Reese Witherspoon film. The actress stars with Laura Dern in the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. The book chronicles how the author, reeling from a divorce, her mother’s death and a heroin problem, trekked 1,100 miles from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border in 1995 when she was 26. The film opens in Sacramento on Friday, December 19.

I remember when Amy first learned about the trail in 2002. Her reaction was one of excitement and disbelief. “People actually do this?” she said.

They do. It takes most people four to five months. Amy and I only managed 50 miles that trip—we’d planned 150, but seriously underestimated the trail’s difficulty.

We did eventually make it over Mount Jefferson. The snow cover made it impossible to see the trail. I nearly took us in the wrong direction, but Amy finally found a cairn—a man-made pile of rocks indicating the trail—pointing in the other direction. We followed those until the snow died down, and eventually found people again.

Countless hikers have trekked the PCT but its popularity has taken a more dramatic incline in the past decade thanks to myriad trail blogs, books, documentaries, et al. Arguably, however, Strayed’s book and the subsequent movie have given it the biggest boost. Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay and there’s already Oscar buzz surrounding the film. Director Jean-Marc Vallee already snagged a Hollywood Film Award for it. All that attention, however, has also brought controversy and criticism.

Ned Tibbits, director of Mountain Education, a wilderness safety school in Reno, says he has reservations about Wild and what the film may teach viewers.

“The movie will … hit a chord for all the people in the world that are stressed out and have emotional issues, and have pain in their lives and can use a little peace of mind to sort it out,” Tibbits says. “And [then] they’ll hit the trail with no preparation whatsoever.”

Since Wild’s publication, it’s proven to be controversial among backpackers. It’s the nature of Strayed’s story in particular, that bothers many. She came to the trail a mess, grieving her mother’s death, using heroin and having one-night stands. Strayed says she learned about the trail via a guide book and felt like it could heal her. Months later she was in the Mojave Desert unprepared, inexperienced and saddled with a pack that was way too big and heavy.

Her friends thought she was crazy, but that experience really did change her for the better, Strayed told SN&R.

“I did this big thing and I found strength again,” she explained following a recent Wild book-signing event in Berkeley.

“That doesn’t mean things that were paining me weren’t still paining me, but I could accept it. It put me in the physical realm—and I was in pain physically,” Strayed said. “It didn’t take away the emotional pain I was in, but it blunted it. It gave it a different conduit.”

Perhaps, but many in the backpacking community are afraid new hikers will follow Strayed’s example and hop onto the trail similarly unprepared. Hiking the PCT requires extensive prep. There’s volatile weather to consider, as well as snow covered trails, wild animals, creek crossings and other unpredictable elements. Serious injury or death are real concerns.

I get such concerns. My wife, who’s now much more experienced, is planning a 2015 hike of the entire trail. It will be her longest, hardest journey yet.

It’s precisely such difficulty that’s made the trail so appealing to Amy. Much in the way it helped Strayed work out her grief, the physicality of hiking helps my wife. Because of her disorder, she often has a difficult time. Hiking helps her get out of the place where emotions and thoughts are overwhelming and gives some distance between her physical and internal world. Doing longer trails, my wife says, has taught skills for planning and executing big goals.

Still, Tibbets, the Mountain Education director, worries that Wild will make some think they can forgo important prep and planning.

“They’ll go, ’[Strayed] went out in the woods. She had a hard time. She found answers,” he said.

Many in the online hiker forums have echoed Tibbits’ sentiments, levying particularly scathing commentary toward Strayed with comments that often come off as elitist and even sexist. While much criticism seems to imply that Wild will open up the PCT to ’bored housewives’ looking to find themselves, few have ever questioned the motives behind men who take on similar journeys. Take, for example, Christopher McCandless who died in 1992 at age 24 while hiking the Alaskan back country. His story was also made into a film by way of 2007’s Into the Wild, starring Emile Hirsch.

The reality is, I’ve seen very few women hikers out there on my handful of trips, but Strayed told me that I’d be surprised at how many of her fans have said they’d never heard about the trail before her book. If Wild inspires more women to get out with a backpack, on the Pacific Crest Trail or otherwise, how is that a bad thing?

Those at the Pacific Crest Trail Association, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that maintains the trail, might agree. The group’s been an active supporter of Wild, capitalizing on the film’s publicity to promote the trail and educate would-be backpackers. Its staff even invited members of Congress to a recent screening of the film in Washington, D.C., as a way to encourage federal funding.

The PCTA was also closely involved with the film’s production, helping producers scout locations and reconstruct parts of the trail on private land. The goal, said PCTA executive director Liz Bergeron, was to ensure the movie’s accuracy.

“The film is going to happen with or without us. People need to care about the PCT,” Bergeron said. “The best way to get people to care about the trail is to get them on it.”

Strayed’s coming of age story has prompted some to make the point that Wild isn’t really about hiking: It’s about Strayed’s personal journey.

Strayed says it’s about both.

“It’s about grief. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about making mistakes and recovering from them. … It’s a more universal embrace of what backpacking is about, and it takes place on the PCT,” she said.

This isn’t to say that the PCT will be a place for healing for everyone. People hike it for a variety of reasons. For Strayed, it happened to be what she needed at the time. For Amy, it’s become the missing element in her life that she never seems to tire of.

Monty Tam, a trail angel—someone who helps hikers—explained it this way:

“Many people will be helped by the PCT. They’ll come back to the world with a whole different attitude,” he said.” It’s not so much about the trail, but about people helping people—the way you wish the world was.”

Since Amy started backpacking a decade ago, I’ve watched her change a lot. Every time we’ve done a trip, she felt alive, passion, love and even a lot of pain, but mostly she says the trail has taught her what she’s capable of, and how to imagine a goal and make it real. It’s because of that first trip she sought out medication and cognitive therapy. And it’s because of the medication that she’s been able to work and lead a normal, productive life.

“The trail won’t change me,” Amy told me recently. “The trail is just refining in me what’s already there. It’s just built on the change that came before.”

“Although there’s a lot of suffering and uncomfortable-ness and tolerating hellish conditions, I feel like it’s a celebration, the whole trail is like me celebrating me,” she added. “It’s a representation of all my work and effort, a physical culmination.”