That Book – Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

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:

Happy Trails!


“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:

  • 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 :)  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.


21 Replies to “That Book – Cheryl Strayed’s Wild”

  1. Very good article. A few years ago “The Book” in the fly fishing community was “A River Runs Through It”, which was also accompanied by a feature film. People lamented how large numbers of inexperienced anglers would be crowding the streams and generally screwing everything up. Apparently it did get more people into the sport, and along with that grew the industry surrounding it. It also got young people interested which in turn grows the drive to protect streams and rivers and other beautiful places trout live.
    I personally enjoyed Wild. It definitely is not a typical PCT read. Changes may happen but if the end result is more people getting out and enjoying this countries wonderful outdoors then we should be celebrating that.

  2. Great review, Mags! I just wrote the same thing on another thread: The book woke the world up to the Pacific Crest Trail once Oprah endorsed it. The trail community saw hiker numbers jump each year since it has been out. At the same time Search & Rescue and Wildland fire crews were jumping, too. Cheryl is aware that her story will cause hasty and poorly prepared novice hikers to hit the trail and get into trouble, pain, and disappointment. I met her last November (2013) to talk about this and see if she would help Mountain Education try to curb this fall out. She was right there and wanted, as we always have, for everyone to find what they are seeking during their wilderness (internal and external) walk and not get injured and never find it. We all have relished the personally restorative aspects of the wilderness. Muir and Roosevelt worked together to protect vast amounts of it so that future generations could find it, too. So, for all those who are about to watch the movie and become inspired to “hit the trail,” let’s welcome them, teach them how to be careful out there and not get hurt, and encourage them to find the inner healing they may be looking for, as was Cheryl. Yes, she strayed, but haven’t we all? At least she strayed into a place that allowed her to hear the answers she needed, a place that has touched all our hearts, as well.

  3. Mags, you wrote some good comments about the film, especially on the need to extend our help to the new ones on the trail. I am in a unique position to comment on the book and movie. I am the person Cheryl Strayed wrote about named “Greg”, the first PCT hiker that Cheryl met in the early days of her journey. Most of the people she wrote about appear in the book with different names. In 1995 I was on a personal journey not unlike Cheryl’s. Mine was not as acute because I was not a drug user or working through many of the emotional issues that Cheryl wrote about. Her book is first about her personal issues, and secondly about the hike as her vehicle for self-discovery. I am witness to Cheryl’s genuine efforts to take that journey on her own merits. When I met her at Spanish Needle Creek, Cheryl had written the previous evening that she was going to quit her hike. My message to Cheryl was to stay positive, be aware of the conditions ahead but don’t get too discouraged. And I gave her a sense that the hike will get better as we moved out of the high desert. In the book she wrote that she decided to continue after her talk with me. And I can attest that Cheryl preferred to hike solo…in hindsight I can understand this. She wanted to take her journey on her own merits. The other hikers at Kennedy Meadows, with their friendliness and advice, may have given her a sense that she was not totally alone. One year later I met a hiker at almost the very same place I first met Cheryl. When I saw him on his PCT thru-hike a few years later in Washington State he said the first encounter with me changed his life. Perhaps this man was ready to turn around toward Walker Pass and go home. My point is that the positive messages and encouragement to the people we meet are so important and can have a meaningful impact. But all of us on the trail have to put one foot in front of the other, on our own. Yes, Cheryl at the start was not well educated in long distance hiking, but so what? We all go out there for the first time, learn from our mistakes, and if we are smart we make changes to improve ourselves. The confidence earned on the trail helps in other aspects of life. In Wild it is important to not overlook that theme.

  4. Wouldn’t life be easier if more people disconnected from technology and found happiness in the simplicity of living off of nothing more than what you can carry on your back.

    Each person’s experiences to a given stimuli will have similarities but the fun is in trying to understand the different perspectives There is a certain charm in the diversity and exchange of ideas with people from different backgrounds.

    p.s. I have grown the most from the mistakes I have made and have found the most rewarding opportunities in those endeavors that take a little effort.

  5. Well written article. I am a thru hiker and thought the book was okay. The response to the movie and how it will affect the trail will be interesting. Thanks for the article, keep it up PMAGS.

  6. Mags…….. I hiked the trail without a tent or tarp in 2014 in 3 months and 28 days. Donna Saufley was turning hikers away, capped at 50 per night. the kickoff is concentrating people to hit these trail angels at the same time so they get overwhelmed. It’s a huge problem for the southern trail angles. I left earlier and was ahead of the herd. I didn’t know much when Scout and Frodo dropped me off but I knew a few things now. BTW……. you were inspirational for me to hike, replied on your advice…………Raggs email

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I suspect the trail angels are going to give way to “for profit” hostels and similar. See the AT. Is it bad? Good? Dunno. But it is change and different.

  7. I’ve seen the movie. I’m not a hiker.
    I was googling her last night and I guess the thing that put me off about Cheryl is in an interview with Vanity Fair she said “I was in serious trouble with heroin, but I wasn’t yet an addict –which isn’t to say I couldn’t or wouldn’t become one, I was dangerously dabbling.”

    I will read the book-but I have a hard time with her statement. If this is true she should be outraged at the “dramatic license” taken in the film… It just rings false to me.

  8. I’ve gotta go with granolagirl, Paul. The story’s shot through with fiction that just doesn’t ring true. If someone shoots heroin for a few months then they’ve got a monkey on their back; they don’t just stop. If someone straps half-again their body weight onto their back then they won’t hump themselves into shape, they’ll get injured (if they stick to the trail). And the list goes on. It’s “A Million Little Pieces” all over again. Sometimes you’ve got to call a spade a spade, and when you market fiction as non-fiction then it’s fibbing. I’m surprised that she hasn’t been outed, like Frey.

    1. Wholeheartedly agree with you. I was bored to tears by the book and felt she was a total poser the more pages I turned. And I really really WANTED to like it! And I loved Eat, Pray, Love – even though Gilbert was paid to go on her journey, she admitted it, and didn’t seem to exaggerate her story. Having been very close to several bona fide heroin addicts who’ve gone through recovery, having gone on many solo trips myself (including one after the death of my father), and being a native Northwesterner who backpacked for years, I kept getting the feeling she was BS-ing a lot of this and making light of committing adultery and sleeping around, like a spoiled brat. I actually thought it was perfect to have Reese Witherspoon play her in the movie as they do seem similar – like those rich cheerleaders in high school who ‘go slumming’ at the parties where they can temporarily escape and come back with street cred to tell all their friends…sigh…oh and changing her name to Strayed? (eye rolling). I’m going to change my last name when I publish my book to Kickass.

  9. I did not like the book as I believe a lot of her trail experience is fiction or severely embellished. However, I found her cavalier attitude towards the mistakes she made preparing for and executing her hike to be really offensive. She does not seem to recognize or care that many people have died making the same mistakes she did. Instead, she seems to revel and rejoice in the fact that people should admire her FOR her mistakes, making almost no effort to mitigate the consequences and surviving from dumb luck. I am an annual grand canyon backpacker and know too many stories of people making her same mistakes and dying. Many of them made heroic efforts to save themselves, and for that, I admire them greatly. For Cheryl to have such a cavalier attitude towards dangerous circumstances, even acknowledging how dangerous it is and doing it anyway, does a disservice to those who have perished in the wilderness, doing what they loved.

  10. I feel compelled to say that from the moment Strayed described her experience in REI, which read almost exactly like Bill Bryson’s narrative, I was a bit wary as to the veracity of the story. As I went on, I thought the tale grew more and more unbelievable. Contrasting it with A Walk in the Woods and the Barefoot Sister’s books, it just stands out sharply as a tale that doesnt “smell right”.
    Just my 2cents. I think people will get far more out of the Barefoot Sister’s books.

    1. Thanks Mercer. Have to check out the Barefoot sisters book at some point. I met them several years ago at the PA Ruck.

      I never really looked in Bryson’s or Strayed’s story as I just shrug my shoulders. Whether their story is true or not? Eh…not really an issue for me. Both books we were OK. Strayed’s genre does not appeal to me. Bryson’s had too much filler once Katz and he left the trail. I did love the southern AT and Maine sections (e.g. non filler portion)

      I do like Bryson as an author however. Brit-like humor and not taking himself all that seriously. Entertaining! Check out his other books.

      1. Yeah, I thought Bryson’s was fantastic until he started yellow-blazing. After that point I wasnt sure what the point was and I felt the tale actually grew a little gray and depressing.

        Oh, you should definitely check out the Letcher sister’s first book. Particularly since you read & reviewed Wild. I think you’ll be intrigued by the contrast between the two.

        1. I suspect Bryson had a contract to fill as much as anything. I did find the PA information (the sinkhole) interesting actually.

          I wouldn’t call what he did yellow blazing, but more of a series of day hikes up and down the trail. To me, yellow blazing is intentionally skipping something to get ahead.

          Cherry picking day hikes once you are done with a thru-hike attempt has a different vibe. At least to me.

          1. Yeah, I could have used the term incorrectly. I thought from what I read in “Just Passin’ Thru” it meant essentially doing large portions of the trail on the road and just day hiking up access points to the trail.
            Regardless once he stopped actually hiking the trail I didnt enjoy the book as much, although I was interested in the environmental message.

  11. An well-written and thought-out article that explores trail-to-book and book-to-movie ‘issues’ very fairly.
    Bravo, Mr. Mags! Bravo!

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