On the beaten path | WILD (the movie) is an unremarkable trip that delivers little adventure or insight

Steven Soderbergh he ain’t. And Bill Kittredge she ain’t. Unwatchably dull. As fake and cliched as the PCT is long, WILD (the movie) is an old-fashioned melodrama with countless unintentionally hilarious “NOOOOOOO!” moments when our heroine gasps in slow motion at the horror of it all. Some truly excruciating writing as tough to get through as any wilderness area, and plenty of stereotyped, paper thin men. For anyone familiar with the Oregon territory traversed here, every note rings false. If you want to see a real movie about real women in Oregon, please god go watch Kelly Reichardt’s timeless 2010 masterpiece MEEK’S CUTOFF.

Cheryl Strayed at the 2013 Oregon Book Awards.
Cheryl Strayed at the 2013 Oregon Book Awards.

I first became interested in reading WILD this summer at the Ashland Hostel, which is a way station each summer to hundreds of PCT thru hikers. Ashland is one of the single best stops on the entire PCT, and the hostel there is the Ritz Carlton for budget travelers. After a day or two in town gorging on smoothies, Shakespeare (work those rush ticket deals) and vegan nut rolls, most hikers are in pretty good spirits. So sitting around on the porch one morning surrounded by a group of lean and lithe types who were aking final adjustments before hopping back on the trail north, I said surely they must all know and love WILD. And I was surprised when a woman replied, “No, we hate that book.”

Huh?

There aren’t many things a PCT thru hiker hates. So why would they hate a book that (so we are told) reveals the essence of hiking the PCT and self-discovery? In a nutshell: Because to many of them the book rings about as true as a three dollar bill. With no further prompting, the group (if they hadn’t read the book they had been given a sufficient Cliff Notes briefing from someone who had) proceeded to take it apart, laughing at how slowly Strayed had gone and how she didn’t even do the whole thing.

You don’t become a PCT thru hiker without a healthy does of ego and desire. Competition and keeping track of your numbers are part of the deal. But still I found it odd that this supposed manual of the PCT experience was being dissed hard by the people’s trail army. It was clear WILD was not about to become the next DESERT SOLITAIRE, a wilderness classic to be revered and packed aboard by a generation of outdoor seekers. Instead it seems to have found its place with the armchair set who don’t actually hike themselves. The outdoors was a backdrop here for the safari, not a real subject. I never got round to reading it.

And now here comes the movie.

It was perhaps inevitable that the female version of INTO THE WILD was going to be way, way less wild. Men and women are different creatures, and when it comes to outdoor adventure and exploration, it’s just not a genre that women pursue at anywhere near the same levels of recklessness, commitment or danger that men do. Which might be another way of saying that women are a lot smarter than men.

True, these are very different kinds of stories and can’t be directly compared. Chris McCandless went (possibly) nuts, set his money on fire, and died. Whereas Cheryl Strayed is alive, appears to be perfectly sane, and probably needs a vault to store the proceeds from her book. But still, both of these pseudo outdoor “survival” tales ask us to take them seriously. The physical struggle is part of the story. So, yeah, you could argue that McCandless had a little too much wild, whereas Strayed had just enough. Bur for anyone familiar with the real thing, it doesn’t feel very wild.

For Strayed’s narrative to make sense, we’re asked to view her slow motion hike on a section of the PCT, which is like the I-5 corridor of backcountry travel and miles (figurative and literal) from a true wilderness experience, as a serious physical adventure. Which it is – mainly as a result of her lack of preparation and knowledge. But living as we do in a place that is not simply near but right ON the trail in question, it’s hard to relate to the sheer cluelessness Strayed seems to display in all of her trail duties – not just at the beginning during the cliched “tough love” stage where she “learns the ways of the trail” (egads, a tent) but also all the way through.

Nowadays at least (though perhaps less so in the mid 90’s), on the list of the most often repeated (and unimaginative) outdoor adventures, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is second only to hiking the Appalachian Trail. These are the pre-packaged Disney experiences of the outdoor world for folks who gravitate toward known quantities and brand names but want to get a little “wild”, the equivalent of deciding to visit Times Square in search of an authentic New York experience, or Aruba for the “classic” spring break.

Both trails are by now so thoroughly known that it’s hard to imagine investing the precious free months needed for a long hike on either one, when so many other much wilder and more authentic experiences (at the same price) abound all over the country, some within a stone’s throw of the big name trails. Today hiking the PCT is about as cool or original as getting your photo taken in front of Niagara Falls. As some stoic non-commercial mountaineer once said: “You always want to climb the next mountain over from Everest or K2 or Denali. There’s never anybody on that one.”

For any backpacker of even moderate ability, the tale told here is standard. The opposing TRADING PLACES version would be to drop a seasoned Oregon outdoors girl in the middle of Manhattan and watch as she – tried to use the subway! Or find a bathroom! Or cross at the light! Or navigate Grand Central at rush hour!

Not very compelling to New Yorkers, but maybe funny to folks in eastern Oregon. However, we live here, and so of course we’re going to apply additional scrutiny to the local territory in Strayed’s story. And not only does she not reveal anything new to us about the place (which is what great travel writing does), she doesn’t seem to learn much about her natural surroundings.

WILD’s opening scene cliffhanger (cue the Jaws theme) sees Strayed huffing and puffing up a trail on a gorgeous warm summer day in the land of central Cascadia. She then takes off a boot to reveal – NOOOOOOO! – a detached toenail. Some serious #FirstWorldProblems. You can feel the Oprah crowd shrinking deep into their seats or hiding behind popcorn buckets to avoid the carnage. “And there’s not a shower for miles!”

Meanwhile the male version of wild would typically start with the stoic death of scores of comrades leaving the single remaining guy to set off on his own for days of starvation, suffering, getting eaten by wolves, etc.

So the whole “wild” thing here needs to be scaled way, way, WAY back. Or at least understood as mainly – or only – an interior wild. And there is some good stuff to be sure in that department. But a better title for the overall story might be UNPREPARED. Strayed’s epic may breathe life into the dying backpacking industry, which has long been abandoned by more adventurous types for trail running, but it’s only going to sound exciting to those weekend warriorettes who prefer the aisles of REI to actual wild time.

What does ring true in the story is the “on the run from the trailer and meth lab” aspect. The family backstory is ugly. Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern both have the hollowed out, thousand yard stares of dust bowl refugees fleeing a Walker Evans portrait down pat. But the combination of urban blight with Oregon outback never quite gels, and the flashbacks from “civilization” play like decontextualized porn just added in there for grit.

The magical fox Strayed keeps seeing along the way feels like the usual greenface treatment of nature by city slickers: It’s this magical, foreign place where weird things happen we don’t understand. Whereas the truth is: The wild is our home, works perfectly in tune with the Great Spirit, and is way safer than your average city.

And one minor nit – but key to local cred. The movie ends at the beautiful and beautifully named Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks, in what should be a world heritage site. For any hiker who makes it as far north as the Columbia, one of the most striking trail features they will encounter on the entire PCT is the dizzying drop down off the Benson Plateau to Cascade Locks, where the trail plunges something like 3,500 feet in about four miles.

For a northbound hiker, this is a quasi religious moment, because not only do you know you are really getting somewhere, but after trundling on around Mt. Hood for 50 miles deep in the woods, you finally get some huge views down into the Gorge. If you haven’t seen it, you need to get wild now. The character of that section and its difficulties would have left a significant emotional imprint on the overall experience of someone finishing there at the Oregon border. But we see absolutely nothing of this descent in the story’s finale.

All of a sudden Strayed is just randomly at Bridge of the Gods with her fox.