I was worried when I heard Reese Witherspoon say in interviews that she decided to make a film of Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage, 2012) because she was looking for properties with strong female leads. Although Strayed would qualify as a strong, female character, I would hate to think of a book as a property or as simply a sound career move for an actress looking for an Oscar-worthy part. Making a film should be making art for art’s sake, but maybe I am being too much of a snob. Still, I refuse to see a film of a book I love, and in the case of Wild I’ve refused and won’t because I do love the book.
In all its constituent parts, Wild is a standard mid-stream reflection on a life in crisis. Like Dante in his Dark Wood, Strayed finds herself in her late 20s, dabbling in heroin and self-destructive behaviors, facing a disintegrating marriage, and most significantly, absorbing the death of her mother. It is the past that has crippled her present. Without previous experience or knowledge about what it takes to hike such a long and grueling path, she decides to put everything on the line and take a chance on a journey of self-discovery. This is what we do when we have nothing left to lose because everything of value, even our souls, has already been surrendered.
Her mother figures into the narrative throughout the book, often appearing in other forms—animals, ghosts, shadows. Strayed attempts to come to terms with how she was raised, the horrors, the disappointments, the paths traveled to survive not for what is best for the future but what is best among limited options in the present. Thoreau’s line about living a life of quiet desperation comes to mind. Her mother dies in her 40s of cancer, and with her end come the heartbreaking moments: her mother cannot put on her own socks and do other things for herself because she is in so much pain so Strayed must do them for her; her mother moves through the house saying goodbye to her pets and meager possessions before entering the hospital for the last time; her mother’s language reduced to single words because she lacks the strength to say more, even when Strayed tells her she loves her. “It hadn’t occurred to me that my mother would die,” Strayed writes. “Until she was dying, the thought had never entered my mind. She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life.”
After she is gone, Strayed dreams of her, and in many of the dreams, nightmares really, she is forced to murder her over and over again at her mother’s request as she begs for relief from the pain and suffering. These are bizarre and difficult visions for the reader to accept: “I tied her to a tree in our front yard and poured gasoline over her head, then lit her on fire. I made her run down the dirt road that passed by the house we’d built and then ran her over with my truck. I dragged her body, caught on a jagged piece of metal underneath, until it came loose, and then I put my truck in reverse and ran her over again. I took a miniature baseball bat and beat her to death with it, slow and hard and sad.” These dreams are not nightmares, but are made even more horrific and real because they seem rendered “in plain, ordinary light.”
Strayed’s journey is harrowing throughout. She focuses that “plain, ordinary light” on every part of the story, from her mother’s death to the addiction to the self-destructive behaviors to the Pacific Crest Trail itself. She faces her fears because she knows that any surrendering to that fear will doom the journey. She cannot give in, she cannot go back, she must survive. She writes: “The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. Now there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.” I am reminded of Ulysses longing for the relief of home in Ithaca, of Dante and Virgil in the Inferno struggling to pass through to the Purgatorio and into the Paradiso. She is changed and forever altered by her journey, her very vision of a self in the mirror becomes strangely different, someone else who quickly becomes who she is now. She is recovered but in that recovery becomes a transfigured entity in body and soul.
On her journey, she meets those who act as shamans or spiritual guides, often in the face of her own skepticism. A woman in a public bathroom approaches her while she is brushing her teeth in an almost comical scene. Strayed thanks her, toothpaste dribbling down her chin, when the woman compliments her on the feather stuck in her pack given to her by another hiker on the trail. The strange woman identifies the feather as from “a raven or a crow, a symbol of the void.” When Strayed questions her about this void, the woman says: “It’s a good thing…It’s a place where things are born, where they begin.” The awkwardness evaporates for Strayed and the reader with knowing the history and what led to the journey. There could be no greater void than Strayed’s life of loss and self-destruction.
In the chapter called “Range of Light,” a term coined by John Muir, she meets a man named Paco who passes her a joint, and who rightly identifies her journey as a “spirit walk.” He gives her another talisman: a Bob Marley tee shirt. “I want you to have it,” he tells her, “because I see that you walk with the spirits of the animals, with the spirits of the earth and sky.” Again, there is something dead on and chilling about these encounters.
Her absent father is not without his own impact on her life. In the midst of a crisis on the trail—her boots were too small and she contemplates walking for a time in sandals to save her feet—she remembers a visit to a an astrologer when she was twenty-three. After the usual mumbo-jumbo of such encounters with the often phony occult, the woman cuts to the bone. She tells Strayed that her father was “wounded,” much like a Vietnam vet is wounded, but he had never been to Vietnam. Strayed, the woman tells her, is wounded like he is, in the same place. “That’s what fathers do if they don’t heal their wounds. They wound their children in the same place.” This inspires an epiphany of sorts for Strayed giving her a key to unlock her family life. Then, the astrologer drops the bomb: “To heal the wound your father made, you’re going to have to get on that horse and ride into battle like a warrior.” The sandals, the hike, the self-immolation—all of this is her war into which she must ride.
The book is indeed one of disturbing images, some that haunt me still even after the book has been finished. One harrowing story is told in flashback when she and her brother and ex-husband must put down her mother’s horse, Lady. They cannot afford a vet, so they decide to do it themselves with a gun. The brother is the trigger man, and he shoots the horse between the eyes, but even with a hole blown into her skull, the horse stands. It takes repeated shots until they run out of ammunition before their bloody work has any effect on the animal. It is a tremendously horrific scene, and one I could not forget.
Another moment of strangeness told in flashback is when the siblings spread their mother’s ashes. The stone they purchased has her mother’s words carved on it: “I am with you always.” They lay down the stone and spread the ashes on the earth around it, but Strayed keeps a few of the larger pieces of burnt bone in her hand. She refuses to release them, and in the end, puts them in her mouth and swallows them whole.
As the trail ends and Strayed prepares to return to her life, she finds the world a different place, a perfect organ for rebirth, for one to emerge transfigured. “There is no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another,” she writes. “What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course.”
This is a deep and soul-wrenching book. It made me think of Emerson and Thoreau, Lewis and Clark, and the writing of Gretel Ehrlich. Would it make a good film? I would not presume to judge without seeing the finished product but I will say that much of what happens to Strayed happens in the interior of conscience, in her reflections as she walks the path north from the Mojave desert to Oregon and finally, to the aptly named Bridge of the Gods. It is in the books she reads on her trek. It is in the memories and reflections on what was and would never be again, over what is lost and found on our journeys. And like Ulysses arriving at Ithaca, when we arrive we should expect nothing to be the same again. The journey has been its own reward, not the arrival, not the destination itself. We must be brave and face the demons, the fall from grace, our own deep, dark night in the woods. For we are always dying, moment by moment from the time of our birth, but in the end all that matters is how we have lived in our brief flicker of light.