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).

The book cover of Wild.

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.

The movie poster for Wild.

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.

Cheryl with the real “Monster” pack on the PCT in 1995

“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.

Reese Witherspoon playing Cheryl Strayed in the movie adaptation of Wild. Cheryl called her pack “monster” for its size and weight. Raise your hand if you also took too much stuff on your hike, and raise it extra high if you would have taken even more if the internet hadn’t told you what was unnecessary.

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.

A young Cheryl Strayed. Photo from Maggie Wallace’s review of the Wild movie.

Genre

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Check out some of our other posts about Wild here, here, and here.

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Comments 22

  • KitKatWithAFork : Aug 8th

    The same folks who rip on Wild are the same folks who rip on Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”. Quite frankly, any book is going to be better than any movie adaptation, but today’s TikTok fans seem to miss the point. It’s not necessarily about the goalpost, it’s about the journey for the characters in these stories, and the internal changes that come from a refreshing of their souls by rediscovering something about themselves on their journey. There’s folks who yearn to be the next Darwin on the Trail or the next Dixie from Homemade Wanderlust, cranking out miles and doing it with smiles, reaching the end, and doing it again with the fastest known time. But for most folks, that’s fantasy, not reality. Kudos to those who can, but no crapping allowed on folks who can’t.

    My mom’s cousin’s daughter hiked the entire AT in 1991, back when gear was huge, external framed packs where what was available, REI’s were few & far between, the Internet was just a figment of Al Gore’s imagination (LOL), and there were very few women hikers on the major trails. With my bad knees, high blood pressure, and parental duties, I’d love to aspire to such great feats someday, but life has a funny way of shaping things for folks.

    Glad you wrote your thoughts and pointed out the haters. Hike your own hike. 😉

    Peace out.

    Reply
    • TheFarmGirl : Aug 9th

      The books are fun. I haven’t read this one (am reluctant to see the movie because I hate hollyweird). But as a youngster I loved travels with charley (even though Steinbeck wasn’t a hiker, or even a hiker 😜), and the two by the PCH guy.

      I bet her book is good. Maybe I’ll read it. Or do. Coin toss. I wouldn’t condemn anyone for not going “the whole length”. I wouldn’t, simply because I can’t legally carry a weapon through all the states. We all have our reasons. Might seem frivolous to others, but hey- I don’t care.

      Reply
    • TheFarmGirl : Aug 9th

      …oh! And I remember the crappy gear! I hiked in the 90’s- with hand me down gear from my parents from the 70’s! So definitely external frame packs, nothing was waterproof 😝, I did have a “new” stove!

      Reply
    • Andrew : Aug 9th

      I might recommend reading the book rather than watching the movie. I watched the movie in the theater (a long time ago) and I just couldn’t empathize with Cheryl. I felt like I just watched someone make bad and self destructive life decisions, and then make bad (though character-building) hiking decisions, and that I paid good money to watch it. Perhaps I would have appreciated the book much more, since books are much more conductive to introspection and making a “intimate psychological profile” of a character. It’s rather more difficult to do that in a movie. Based on this article’s excellent defense of the story, I’m considering reading the book, all these years later.

      Reply
  • Drew Boswell : Aug 9th

    “Wild” is a wonderful book and your review/defense of it is very well-stated.

    Reply
  • Pinball : Aug 9th

    Fantastic. I love the movie A Walk In The Woods, despite the flawed fat-jokes and whatever other flaw you may find. Goofy buddy movie while shining light on the trail, sign me up. Anything that shines a light on trails I’m all for. I would love to have a friend join me for “only” 700 miles on the trail.

    Now thanks to your review, I know I should see Wild, as there is a decent chance I’ll like it. Inner conflict while shining light on PCT? Sign me up.

    Love this line:
    “They especially don’t want to read about experienced people doing everything right and having a jolly good time.“
    So true.

    Reply
    • Neversink : Sep 29th

      I love the movie! I will post about this further down. There is nothing wrong with fat jokes, nor is there anything wrong with jokes about almost any other thing in life. Katz was fat. And Katz joked about it. My friend who died of obesity was quite enormous. He always made fat jokes. He was a lovely person but unfortunately he died of fat. By the way, he thought putting fat people on the cover of sports magazines and fashion magazines set a bad example for children. Fat is unhealthy.

      Reply
  • Ralph B. Mahon : Aug 9th

    Should have been more about hiking, not her hoho lifestyle….sorry Santa, wasn’t referring to you.

    Reply
  • Greg "babbling Brooks" : Aug 9th

    Well written review. Thank you, and I agree. I’m a runner not a hiker, well, kinda Did Kili few years ago and wrote Brooks Running, Memoir, a spiritual journey. Amazon.

    Reply
  • Daniella : Aug 9th

    Thank you so much for this article…for so many reasons. Mostly, I just never understood the hate amongst the hiker community for this woman’s story. We often here that the trail is “all about the people” and helping each other out…so where do these judgemental thoughts and words come from. She never claimed to be writing a book about how to hike the PcT. It’s simply her story. And anyone who was motivated by her story to try and change something in their lives, by hiking the PCT or anything else, well good for them. That doesn’t make them any less of a “PCTer” than you. Maybe just be careful not to turn the hiking community into the cool high-school “In group” that only certain people can be part of.

    Reply
  • Ra3b3ll : Aug 10th

    I think people are confused. Wild wasn’t about the trail. It was about Cheryl. Same with Brysons book. Wasn’t about the trail.

    Reply
  • Sarah Chappell : Aug 10th

    You sound exactly like me describing the book. I like good writing. If it includes a pilgrimage, all the better. If that pilgrimage towards inner peace and freedom includes a walk on a long trail, heck yes! No, you probably shouldn’t find it in a section entitled “books on hiking,” or “backcountry preparedness,” it is her journey through grief and addiction, which happens to take her on a very long hike on the PCT. She is a bad-ass for being one of the few women who did it when she did it, without lots of fancy or ultralight gear. She was unprepared, things went badly, she learned, things went better. It is a good example of what not to do, and also what to do. Find your way through grief on a pilgrimage through the outdoors, if you can find or make the time. Live minimally, and with the rhythms and forces of nature, for as long as you can stand it. It is incredibly healing. It is as good a reason as any to do such a thing.

    Reply
  • Pete : Aug 11th

    Your essay delivered the goods. I haven’t read Strayed’s book, but good writing requires certain things, like character, plot, conflict, irony, etc. And the best “trail” books (forget today’s awful movies) are usually by writers who understand this and become hikers, not hikers who TRY to become writers via poorly written and edited trail journals. The fact she didn’t finish the trail? Who cares! Robert Falcon Scott failed in reaching the South Pole, but his story is far more intriguing than Roald Amundsen’s.

    Reply
  • Pamela : Aug 12th

    I liked the book. Movie was ok too. Haters gonna hate.

    Reply
  • Greg in Wild / Roger Carpenter : Aug 13th

    I love reading new articles about Wild because I was on the PCT with Cheryl Strayed in 1995. I was the first hiker she met, and you can read her account of our meeting at Spanish Needle Creek on page 86. I was thrilled recently to learn that worldwide sales of Wild have exceeded 5 million copies! With such success for Cheryl’s very well written memoir I find criticism of Wild be long distance hikers to be unfair, as the author of this post is pointing out. When I thru-hiked the AT in 2021 I met many people who are inspired by Cheryl’s story. Anyone is free to feel differently, of course. Today on the PCT many hikers were not yet born when Cheryl embarked on her adventure in 1995, when relatively little information, tools such as GPS guidance, blogs, videos, smartphones and apps were available. These days a few articles found with Google can provide much of the information a hiker needs to improve their experiences. There are exponentially more choices for lightweight gear now than in 1995. One point I would make to someone critical of Wild is this: while on a hike or, really, any activity or encounter we find ourselves in, we might have opportunities to make a difference in another person’s life. I have been told by many people that I encouraged Cheryl to keep on hiking rather than quitting. More likely, meeting others on the trail gave Cheryl a sense of community and support that was missing on the sparsely populated PCT in 1995. At Kennedy Meadows it was Meadow Ed. Matt and others who were there. too. Sometimes we need a little boost to attain enough confidence to achieve something. In my 68 years of life I have been the recipient of encouraging words from others, and thus understand the opportunities to give. Readers who criticize Wild are more likely to miss this important lesson.

    Reply
  • Joe : Aug 13th

    You’re right. The book is not about hiking at all. The hike is only a catalyst. Same way I hike. Sure I want to finish whatever trail I’m hiking, but my goal is really to commune with my higher power, for me, God. As a recovering alcoholic-addict, I completely related to her story. However, I also realize that “normal” people may not. Hike your own hike, live the life you want.

    Reply
  • Reba : Aug 16th

    Holy jeepers, people have actually said nobody should be out there seeking healing? Wow. That’s just crazy. There are so many people out on long trails doing just that, and who have thousands of followers on YouTube and other social media. Veterans suffering PTSD and just don’t know what to do with their life after getting out of the military. Addicts who are dealing with sobriety. Abuse victims who go out to get away from people. And who often find their tramily. There are so many reasons to hit the trail. To me, it’s my “church”. It is where I find solace. No, I’ve never done a long trail. The longest trip I’ve done is 14 days. Solo. It’s all I have opportunity to do. But to criticize either Cheryl, or Bill Bryson’s books because “they didn’t even finish the trail” is just crazy. How many THOUSANDS of people start any long trail and actually finish it? Not many! The fact that they were out there at all is what matters. And neither of them intended to thru-hike it. They were just out there because it’s there. There are thousands more people who section hike all the long trails. Are they less a “hiker” because they don’t thru-hike it? No! They are people, and they have a story to tell, and they wrote it down brilliantly. Bill Bryson is one of my favourite non-fiction writers. I have several of his books, and have read “A Walk in the Woods” more than once. I’ve read Chery’s book, and I can relate in SO MANY ways!

    And just in case anyone has forgotten, one of the biggest thru-hiker channels on YouTube is Homemande Wanderlust, and Dixie left on her thru-hike of the AT with no experience and very little knowledge of WTF she was doing out there. And she admits that fairly often! (love ya Dixie!<3 ) She had the benefit of better updated equipment, and the internet to prepare her though. Cheryl did not.

    Reply
  • Stefan : Aug 16th

    Your arguments are good!

    But I suppose that people who complain about “Wild” and other literature aren’t doing this because of arguments. It’s more about social psychology: Trying to defend one’s own experience and proficiency against anyone or anything. To feel better. Here on Camino in Europe – where I’m actually hiking – there are many guys who present themselves as the only “true pilgrims”. Others are just tourists for them. But it’s not about real arguments. Fir example I hike more but often my own paths that seem to be more interesting but a lot longer. For them that’s breaking rules. Although there’s no single law for or against it. If you just see it from an historical standpoint they are no pilgrims nor am I. But: It’s not about arguments. It’s about narcissism or at least about defensing the own worldview and self-proficiency.

    Reply
  • Frank : Aug 16th

    I have always found myself in complete awe and respect of people like Strayed who put their life experiences out there knowing the couch dwellers and pretenders will spew forth the usual amount of online vitriol. I wonder how the critics would have done hiking the PCT pre ultralight, pre well established trail angels and at a time when hiking the PCT was actually about being out there and not just the trail angel supported sprint to the next well supportive trail town. One thing is undeniable, at times there seems to be an over abundance of sanctimony in the thru hiker community.

    Reply
  • Laci : Aug 19th

    I loved the criticism. People who are fairly good at something forget that they are not good at everything. That includes knowing what makes a good story. There is a line from The Hobbit that I think fits you description of how people don’t really want to hear about a perfect trip:

    “Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

    Thank you for this article, its clear and blunt.

    Reply
  • revloren : Aug 22nd

    I hiked the PCT the same summer as Strayed. While I never met her, I’m not sure that I would have wanted to. Indeed, I made many of the same rookie mistakes she made. However I feel like I made attempt to learn from those mistakes and recognize my impact on the environment.

    The criticism toward ‘Wild’ is not that Strayed didn’t finish the PCT; lots of people don’t complete the entire trail. It’s not that she was woefully unprepared for her journey; even experienced backpackers are often surprised by the challenges of long-distance hiking. And it is also true that a story about a strong, competent hiker with no conflict and no baggage would be a boring story indeed.

    The problem with Strayed is that she vehemently embraced and defended her haplessness and seemingly refused to learn from her mistakes. Rather than use the experience to grow and move on from trauma, she chose to wallow in her deliberate recklessness. Strayed was almost proud to be such a hot mess. This has bred a subset of hikers that feel entitled act helpless, and refuse to recognize their responsibility to others.

    Certainly thru-hikers are quick to embrace the philosophy of ‘Hike your own hike’. But HYOH only applies when a hiker is not negatively impacting the experience of others hikers, trail communities and the trail environment. Rather than write a book about a hiking pity party, Strayed would have done better to write a story of personal growth, in which she came to recognize that her actions have impacts on the world outside herself.

    Reply
  • Neversink : Sep 29th

    This was an excellent review of an excellent and fascinating movie.

    Having worked in the movies as well as being an avid hiker I found this movie to be a great nailbiter.

    I have not yet read the book but very few movies follow a book exactly.

    What was refreshing about this movie was that it wasn’t the usual look at how beautiful the Pacific crest Trail is, Ain’t Nature grand type of entertainment.

    It also wasn’t the usual “look at how many miles I’m walking and look at how much I’m struggling every day but ain’t I a great hiker’ boring and egotistical type of presentation.

    Cheryl confronted her many destructive demons from the past and challenged them. There was a lot of tension in the movie, which makes it a great movie. And not only did Cheryl confront her demons about the past, she moved forward into a new life.

    I believe Cheryl accomplished so much more than most hikers on long distance trails accomplish, even if they complete their hike from end to end. She did not have to finish the hike but she did walk the Pacific crest Trail.

    And yes, she was a neophyte at the beginning, however she not only confronted her demons of the past but proved that she could meet up to the challenges of wind, rain, snow, drought, challenging terrain, and questionable humans.

    Cheryl is a true heroine. She met her goals despite all of the odds against her and despite all the pain—- and turned her troubled past life into something beautiful.

    Reply

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