My wife and I had two different reasons for wanting to go to the movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon (playing the real life Cheryl Strayed), the day after Christmas. She just wanted to see a good “chick flick” (I hate that name, but don’t have anything better) and during Christmas week, I wanted us to go to several not very “chick flicks. ” But I also wanted to go to Wild in hopes I could reminisce about the miles and miles of backpacking I did in my younger years.
For Lorraine, the movie was well acted and depicted a woman whose life had gone completely wrong. Failing to have any other solution, Cheryl decides hiking the length of the Pacific Crest Trail (1100 miles) would help her figure out where you go after you hit the legendary “rock bottom.” Flashbacks to Cheryl’s past life as well as vignettes of her present life were sandwiched between her experiences as a novice backpacker on the trail that saw her conquer rattlesnakes, desert wasteland, snow fields, and a variety of scary, odd, and nice men (and one woman).
For me, the Wild was a walk (hike?) down memory lane. I was a backpacking addict in the 60s and 70s and enjoyed Cheryl’s struggle with the specialized equipment used by hikers. With each item she pulled out of her backpack, I got a jolt from the past.
When Cheryl gets her first pair of hiking boots, there’s the label “Danner” on the box. My first good boots were Danner boots—not made like today’s lightweight hiking boots, but rather built like battleships for the feet. More of a mountain climbing boot made to stand up to sharp rock, these boots weighed about 4 pounds each and were some of the first to be equipped with the rugged lugs of Vibram soles. Heavy as they were, at the time, they were only boots sturdy enough for long hikes.
Then there was her heavy, heavy pack (so large other backpackers called her pack “Monster”) with its external frame and sad suspension system it was nothing like the carbon fiber, internal-frame packs made today. To me, the pack she was using— a nylon bag on an aluminum pack frame—was a step up from what I started with. My fist pack was a ponderous, fiberglass pack board that you tied all you equipment to with a small, canvas tarp (manty) and rope. The shoulder straps were webbing with absolutely no padding (talk about a “Monster” of a pack).
Later, I got a pack just like hers and, for years, relied on it to carry everything I needed through the trough that is the Grand Canyon, the mountain crags of Glacier National Park, the accident-waiting-to-happen park called Yosemite (long story for another time). Everything Cheryl used—water bottle, down-filled sleeping bag, backcountry stove, pop-up tent—brought back memories of the great times I had hiking.
Since you probably thought this was supposed to be a movie review and not just me reminiscing on a younger, sturdier Dave, maybe I should get back to the film. All in all, we both liked the movie. Her, because she felt Wild had a good story, was well performed, and had a good amount of emotional impact. For me, I enjoyed it for what most people would consider all the wrong (self-serving) reasons (but what’s’ wrong with a good dose of nostalgia).
I found I also enjoyed the fantastic scenery in the movie as well as getting a good sense of the rhythm of walking mile after mile down the trail. The movie really did show why backpacking long trails becomes addicting for some people.
The movie also did a nice job of depicting the sense-of-self I always found when traveling in the wilderness. In fact, this was the main theme of the movie. The film showed that without life’s distractions or interruptions, the rhythm of walking down a trail for mile after mile is like meditation. You have nothing to do (ruling out crossing high water streams, fighting grizzly bears, and leaping off steep cliffs) but remember the past and focus on your present. The longer you walk the more you understand what makes you happy and what makes you sad. After a long hike, I always had a long mental list of what I needed to do next in my life. Wild did a wonderful job of showing that contemplative part of a wilderness experience via a simple, but elegant performance by Witherspoon.