Looking at Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and the often passionate debate about the book and upcoming movie.
UPDATE FOR JANUARY 2015: Welcome to all viewers from one site! Constructive debate always welcome. To me, it’s just an OK book that many people either laud too highly or vilify way too much.
Since you all love to discuss books in great detail, here are some other outdoor books you can all read and have some discussion on as well:
“Have you read THAT book ????
For anyone who is heavily into the outdoors, especially long backpacking trips, that question often gets asked a few times over the years from friends, co-workers, family members and other acquaintances.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, THAT book was A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. A humorous and lighthearted account of one person’s attempt at hiking the Appalachian Trail.
A few years later, Into the Wild, esp once the movie came out, was THAT book.
A few years after that book? The movie 127 Hours came out and the new “THAT book” discussed was the book the movie 127 hours is based upon.
Now it is 2014.
Another movie is about to be released based on a new THAT book: Cheryl Stayed’s Wild. For those who may not be aware of the book, or the upcoming Reese Witherspoon movie based upon it, Wild is an autobiographical account of hiking 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Once Wild received a benediction from Oprah’s book club, the book took off like wildfire.
Cheryl Stayed become a rock star among a certain demographic. The book was discussed, lauded and held to be at the same level as Moses bringing down the Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai.
Needless to say, it is a popular book.
An interesting thing happened, though. The backlash from the long distance hiking community has been rather vitriolic at times.
Some choice comments from various online sources::
Total sh**. When the ignorant and incompetent get the glory, we all fall to meet that standard.
I have always wanted to read a book about a heroin addled whore gumping along on the PCT! So, from that perspective the movie will be awesome if, it highlights the heroin/whore part. I think it really will encourage the right kind of people to quit their jobs a hookers and panhandlers in order to clog up the PCT.
She’s merely a self-absorbed hack, who figured out how to exploit sex, abuse, animals, and Nature as a great marketing tool to showcase her own . . . whatever.
What a scam this woman has going. I was under the impression I would be reading about a woman’s incredible, courageous jourrney on the PCT. What I got was a story about a nympho who day hiked PART of the trail. She didn’t even start at the traditional starting point and skipped the entire state of Washington.
And so on…
My own personal take on the book is that I have read better, I have read worse… An airport book is what I tend to call this book: A solid three stars out of five. Something to kill a few hours while traveling to and from a destination.
For her part, Cheryl Strayed never claimed to have hiked the whole PCT. She took a personal journey of healing and reflection. I suspect the same journey could have been done on the Camino, biking across America or on a long hitchhiking trip. A book about a different journey could have also been written, and the controversy in the hiking community would have been non-existent. Some of us would still be kvetching about A Walk in the Woods instead. 😉
I can’t speak, personally, on why this book has struck a chord with its demographic so deeply. I am not the target audience.
What I can speak to is the rather passionate debates about the book and the upcoming movie.
First, I scratch my head at comments made by some of the audience of the pro-Wild crowd. Just because someone is not an enthusiastic supporter of the book, that does not mean they are misogynistic, a “hater” and/or elitist. I am happy that people found a story they are passionate about. However, if someone does not share their passion, that is OK. Remember, this book is not really about the PCT per se, it is about a personal journey that happens to take place on the PCT. And that is not everyone’s cup o’ tea.
Having said that…
What I find interesting are some of the comments made by some members of the long distance hiking tribe. It is one thing to give an even handed review of why you do not like the book for various reasons, it is quite another to make comments as referenced above. I wish I could say these comments are a small minority. However, it appears these comments are a large and vocal minority instead
So why the passionate hate towards the book?
I think there a few reasons:
- Call it the hipster syndrome. “This was so much cooler before other people discovered it!” Yes. The long hiking trails made for a certain allure before becoming popular, but get over it. It is a still a wonderful experience. If you find the crowds are too much on the PCT, get off the beaten path and do something with less guidebooks, trail specific maps and a huge logistic support. Take the trails for what they are and not what you want them to be.
- Worried over the amount of unprepared people hitting the trail. A legitimate claim to a certain point. People will go on the trail without proper gear, no knowledge and experience. Not good things indeed. But I do not think we are talking about Into the Wild level danger, but rather Walk in the Woods style bumbling. SoCal is not Alaska or even the Sierra. Most people who did not do their homework will drop out early; some will muddle through.Those who persevere will make it to Manning Park, BC with a smile on their face. And are ardent supporters of the PCT.
- The Trail Angel/hostel/town network will be strained Again, a legitimate claim…up to a point. The PCT is more popular. Those wonderful gratis or even low cost services hikers have known will probably get replaced by commercial endeavors as the trail gains popularity esp if there is money to be made. Sorry. Again, look at the AT. Is it bad? Is it good? Neither. It is different. I also have a sneaking suspicion the loudest critics of the Wild-inspired crowd often made use of water caches, trail angel coolers and free food. Wonder what a 1984 PCT thru-hiker would say about their 2004 or so counterpart?
- There are other hikers who have written better books about the trail experience an/or it was not a “real account” of hiking the PCT. Maybe. That is a personal opinion and I really can’t argue for or against someone’s opinion. I readily admit Wild is not my favorite book, either. However, just to repeat, Wild is not a book about hiking the PCT per se. The book is about a person’s journey that happened to take place on the PCT. Frankly, the crossover of people who loved the book Wild and love books about straight up backpacking accounts are a minority.
I think the real reason, though, in the end why there is such strident commentary against Wild and the Wild-inspired hikers is because of change. Change that is taking place to the trail and the trail community around it. People are generally conservative creatures and really don’t like change for the most part. Change is different and unknown. (Or maybe it it just simply sour grapes??? )
But Wild is only one part of the phenomenon. There are more people on the trail, growing popularity of the trail in general, growing connectivity and other factors that are part of this change. The trail, or rather the trail experience, WILL change.
Rather than decry the influx of Wild-inspired hikers, welcome them to the tribe. Some will drop out quickly. Some will be clueless. Some will have an overly romantic notion of what the trail life entails. No different than previous hikers..eh? Myself included!
Mentor these new hikers. Answer their questions. Break bread with them in trail towns. Support them. Make them feel part of the community.
More than a few will make it to Manning and become passionate about the trails and become ardent supporters of said trails.
And isn’t that what is important in the end?
Personally, I like the AV Club’s take on this trailer: “Witherspoon plays a troubled young woman, accused here of “using heroin and… having sex with anyone who asks,” who goes on a 1,000-mile hike that naturally turns into a voyage of self-discovery, meeting friends and strangers along the way, all to the strains of Beck’s elegiac “Turn Away.”
UPDATE: And here’s my review of THAT movie.