In Defense of Wild: Cheryl Strayed’s Memoir Is Nothing Like Your Trail Journal, and That’s OK
When I was on the PCT, I encountered a lot of hate for Cheryl Strayed’s classic PCT memoir, Wild. I saw a fair bit of Wild love too, but the book (and subsequent movie adaptation) definitely had more detractors in the PCT community than I expected. A lot of hikers had comments like:
“She didn’t even do the whole PCT.”
“She was so unprepared.”
“It isn’t really about the trail, it’s about her.”
These criticisms are common in the long-distance backpacking community, epitomized by the website donthikelikewild.org. People think that Cheryl set a bad example by embarking on the trail without proper preparation and that it will encourage others to make similar mistakes. Some believe that because others do longer or riskier hikes more responsibly, we should read their stories instead. Many people think the point of Wild is to be impressed with Strayed’s hike, which actually isn’t that impressive at all (I mean c’mon, she only hiked 1,000-plus miles instead of 2,000-plus—might as well just stay home at that point).
Did these people read the book or watch the movie? Not necessarily. And those that did that continue to harbor these criticisms might want to take a stroll to their local public high school, and re-enroll in a freshman English class to brush up on the elements that make a good story. So, building off our review from eight years ago (2014 was eight years ago?!?!?!), I’m going to defend Wild. The elements that people critique are precisely what makes Wild a good and compelling story, and what sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill trail journal or adventure book.
Stories Have Conflict. Good Stories Have Internal Conflict.
For there to be a story, a character must want something, and there must be obstacles on the way to achieving it. Here is a great piece on different kinds of conflict. Wild is good because Cheryl’s external conflicts lead to internal conflict, eventually leading to internal change.
This synthesis of internal and external conflict is important for compelling stories, as stories that lean too far in one direction or the other can be dry or shallow. A long-distance hike is a lot of time spent alone, and in a way, the novel is the best medium for conveying internal life. There are external conflicts too, but part of what makes them interesting is that we care about Cheryl and see her overcoming these external conflicts as necessary to her internal journey towards self-acceptance, healing, and redemption.
No Change, No Story
Change and conflict are related but not synonymous—in a strong story, conflict leads to change. A story in which it’s a beautiful day, but then it snows unexpectedly, and everyone goes on with their lives is a story in which there’s only a physical change. A story in which it snows unexpectedly, the group becomes trapped, and they have to eat each other is one with a social change. If a married couple separates because one of them eats the kids, that’s an interpersonal change. And when the kid eater comes to terms with having eaten their kids, that’s an internal change. Writer Damien Walter has a great post about conflict and change across all levels.
Wild explores change on every possible level. Cheryl must navigate a physical change in her reality (her mother’s death), the social change of her family’s disintegration, the interpersonal change of her divorce, and the psychological change of finding peace.
Even on the PCT itself, she navigates drought, heat, and rain (physical), relationships with other hikers (social/interpersonal), and her own psychological journey. The psychological change does the heavy lifting across Wild—as it should, as this is the richest and most compelling level of change and conflict.
“But She’s Setting a Bad Example”
“You would have me, when I describe horse-thieves, say: ‘Stealing horses is an evil.’ But that has been known for ages without my saying so. Let the jury judge them; it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are.”— Anton Chekhov, in a letter to Alekseys S. Suvorin, who had accused him of indifference to good and evil in his stories.
If I wanted rock-solid advice on how to long-distance hike, I’d read Adventure Ready. Cheryl Strayed is not Heather Anderson, and that’s the point! She’s inexperienced and makes mistakes. It’s not her job to write in neon letters “don’t be like me” (though that message is obvious to anyone who reads the book: her inexperience frequently leads to a pretty bad time).
It’s her job to portray her younger self with love and empathy, to show what kind of person it was who started the trail near Mojave and what kind of person it was who finished it at the Bridge of the Gods. If this inspires anyone else to make stupid decisions on trail, that’s their problem, not Cheryl’s.
And also, do you really think that trails need to stay secret to keep them away from people who didn’t grow up immersed in trail culture? Are people who learned about the PCT from Wild “unworthy” of the trail? Why does that make them not “real” hikers?
Lastly, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I, like Cheryl, made the mistake of relying on theoretically unreliable water sources: I just got lucky, and Cheryl did not. I also took too much stuff and am bad at deciding how well boots fit in the store. She was a frequent day hiker and grew up connected with the outdoors. She was no less experienced than many people I saw on trail—she just didn’t have the internet for easy extensive research, and there were fewer hikers, so her mistakes were higher stakes. Did you ever make a mistake on your hike? If so, give Cheryl a break.
And that scene where she licks condensation off her tent? That’s only in the movie.
A Memoir Is Not a Trail Blog, and That’s OK
I’ll admit, it’s very fun to be able to follow along on people’s hikes from afar via trail blogs. You have great descriptions that make me feel like I’m right there next to you. You’re intentional about which anecdotes to include for maximum amusement. You characterize vividly— I feel like I know you and your tramily personally! So good job, and please, keep the updates coming! I’m biting my nails, will you make it to Katahdin?!
Trail blogs can be good sources information for people planning a long-distance hike, to give them granular details about what the day-to-day is like on trail. They’re also great ways for friends and family to follow along on an adventure, and they can be fun and nostalgic to look back on after returning home. After some time has passed since the journey, once a hiker can more clearly articulate what their journey was really about on a deeper internal level, trail journals can even from the skeleton of a later memoir. All this to say, there is absolutely value in trail journals.
BUT: A Trail-blog PCT Book Would be Really, Really Boring.
Trail blogs are not books and generally shouldn’t be without substantial revision. Or, if they are, they will be books with a very, very, very narrow audience. Most general people outside of the long-distance hiking community don’t want to read about the one time it rained, and the other time you got sick of peanut butter, and the other time your knee hurt, and then three days later it hurt some more. They just don’t care.
They especially don’t want to read about experienced people doing everything right and having a jolly good time. That story has no conflict. It has no suspense. There’s no driving question, no motivation, and no change. Many criticisms of Wild (that she made poor choices, or that it’s not really about the trail) seem to not understand that these are what makes Wild a good and compelling memoir.
Even when there are crazy adventure adventure stories that have a driving question, it’s generally: will they make it? Will they succeed in what they set out to do? Or will they quit and go home? And this driving question works, at least well enough to give a story a slightly broader appeal. But it’s arguably surface-level compared to: will she learn to live with her past? Will she become proud of herself again? Will she come to terms with her grief and the loss of her mother? Will she literally die on the trail in the process?
These are much more compelling questions, the kinds of questions at the center of all effective memoirs. And they are the questions at the heart of Wild.
Wild is not trying to be a crazy adventure story. It’s about a woman who goes on a crazy adventure to come to terms with her past and imagine her future. And her adventure isn’t crazy because no one has done it before— it’s crazy because she’s doing it. It’s grounded and personal. Our journey with Cheryl feels like an intimate psychological profile rather than an exploration and adventure book. When people are annoyed that Cheryl didn’t hike the whole PCT, they’re missing the point: the driving questions of Wild are different than that of a crazy adventure story, and that’s what gives Wild a broader appeal.
Wild may inspire people to embark on the PCT in the process, but perhaps not so much because it’s cool as because they think that they, like Cheryl, may be able to find healing on trail. And don’t go saying that no one is allowed to find healing on trail because that somehow “cheapens” the trail experience, or makes people unprepared for the actual rigors of hiking, or it’s somehow the “wrong” way to relate to the trail. Just shut it. Shut up. People have been making pilgrimages for thousands of years. Who are you to say that they’re not allowed to do it on a long-distance hiking trail? Who are you to say that the only “valid” hike is one in which the person starts perfectly psychologically healthy and is not hoping for the trail to change them in particular ways? Just shut up, hike your own hike, and let others hike theirs.
Did I strawman criticisms of Wild in this piece? Absolutely. But I think that these strawman criticisms show us something about the long-distance hiking community and reveal misconceptions about what makes a good story. So, if it’s been a while since you’ve read or watched Wild, maybe give it another go. And think about what makes the story good.
P.S. She never says she hiked the whole trail. Granted, this is clearer in the book (where there is a literal map of the part of the trail that she hiked). In the movie, she keeps saying she’s “hiking the PCT,” so someone unfamiliar with the trail landmarks might misunderstand (most people probably don’t know that Mojave is not near the Mexican border and the trail doesn’t end at the Bridge of the Gods). But yeah, she did not hike the whole PCT, and that’s fine.
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