Unless you’ve been on trail for the last two years, you likely know that today, the movie version of Cheryl Strayed’s book WILD comes out (in select theaters, sorry Bend, OR). Cheryl’s story of her 1996 section-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail is one of few major blockbuster films about long distance hiking. Not watching movies in theaters is one of the ways that I save money for thru-hiking every summer—but I think with WILD, I’ll make an exception.
There are a lot of WILD haters on the Internet and in the hiking community. Sure, Cheryl is not the best hiker in the world, but I can guarantee that whatever hiker is bemoaning her hiking skills can’t write anywhere close to as well as Cheryl. The way she uses words in the book is an art form such that even when I knew what would happen next in the story—in the hiking world, when a problem befalls someone, there are usually limited options, only one of which won’t end in the author dying—I still wanted to read on.
In movie form, I was worried that the poetic nature of Cheryl’s writing would disappear, but everything I hear from those who have seen it already is that the beauty remains. With the exception that that the landscape scenery is sometimes distracting to thru-hikers (who know that “hey, that background is clearly the Oregon High Desert, not the California High Desert”), the storytelling and acting in the movie is supposedly quite moving. The word being thrown around is “Oscar Bait.”
A big concern many hikers worry about is that if a million people watch WILD and even 0.1% of them decide to go hike the PCT as a result, that’s 1000 extra people hiking on the PCT. Skeptics of WILD claim that these people likely think that Cheryl is a backpacking expert. These people are going to crowd the trail, not practice Leave No Trace, and leave trash and toilet paper everywhere along our pristine wilderness.
I find the views of these haters to be too extreme.
First, the Pacific Crest Trail Association has been incredibly active about capturing the interest in WILD as a discussion started to practicing responsible hiking. With the PCTA as the starting point for all information about the PCT, prospective hikers will likely get the information they need to reduce their footprint on the trail.
Second, the Class on 2014 PCT thru-hikers certainly had their share of WILD aficionados, and for the most part, the ones I met were 30-60 year old women who were eager to learn about how to hike better, safer, and more responsibly. Those who are going to be least responsible (who am I kidding—it’s clearly men 18-24 I’m talking about here) are not really the target audience for WILD.
Lastly, I strongly believe that every person who does a long hike is going to come out better on the other side. Any person who is willing to enter a place and a lifestyle that lets them live authentically—without the distractions of electronics or pressures of money and status—is going to change their world perspective.
Despite the ecological pressures that increased hiking use may have on a narrow PCT corridor (especially the desert), I believe that every hiker who walks the PCT is going to have a changed environmental ethic. Walking a long hiking trail has the power to change how a person votes in elections. It has the power to change how a person spends dollars in the “real world.” It has the power to change what causes people put their energy behind supporting. And, as WILD shows, it has the power to heal.
Each person who hikes the PCT comes off the trail spreading an environmental message and a message of healing to dozens of family and friends who follows their journey. I’m not saying that a bunch of WILD-watching hikers are going to change the world overnight, but the potential impact WILD could have on our communities, our lifestyle, and our world as a whole is certainly not nil.
If WILD has the power to bring us closer to a world of healed, whole people who value natural places of beauty, (and tell a story that will entertain for 2 hours while eating popcorn), I think it’s certainly worth $10 to see it in the theater.