Written By: Kyla M. West
Ah, there’s nothing quite like the burning sensation of underworked muscles throbbing to the tune of belabored breathing while sweat finds places on your body you didn’t even know could sweat.
Yes, hiking can really bring out the best features of the human condition.
Or, as Cheryl Strayed of Wild (2014) put it:
In a desperate attempt at redemption from what appears to be years of severely bad choices, Reese Witherspoon portrays a young woman, Cheryl Strayed, who’s taken the onus to find herself on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). From drug abuse, to adultery and unplanned parenthood, Cheryl is coping with the crippling loss of her mother in all the wrong ways. Fortunately for her, she finds another path to wander, though it will take her 1,000 miles until she becomes the woman she and her mother would be proud of.
Despite being a woman who has wounds of her own, I found myself readily disgusted by Cheryl. In fact, I was downright critical of her throughout the majority of the film, even to the point of her too-clean hair while she goes weeks without a shower. But as her story progressed, I came upon the eerie realization that in a few ways, we weren’t all that dissimilar. Hell, we even looked similar at times. Ugh. At one point, though, I even envied her. As Cheryl lets go and accepts that some people are no longer in her life, I just sat, watched, and wished it took me only three months and a long walk to overcome the shattered heart, betrayals and losses I’ve endured.
Life has a funny way of reaching out and making unsuspecting connections, or at least some uncanny coincidences. Though I haven’t made the choices that plague Cheryl, life has sure thrown me some ripe lemons. Like our protagonist does in this story, I turned to writing when overcoming my biggest grievances. Unlike Cheryl, I didn’t let those scribbles meet a fiery death, but it’s made my short list of to-dos. I have always turned to nature during strife, and found therapy in hiking, letting my mind creep into its darkest corners in my time alone. Yet with each hike I feel a little lighter; I let the challenge of a trail push out my hurt like sweating a toxin through the skin, only to be whisked off by a breeze.
I found other connections to Cheryl’s life in interesting ways throughout the film. Years ago, my mother broke the news of a cancerous diagnosis. Though she has just celebrated 5 years free of it and is not a carrier, a vigorous reminder of what could have happened never ceases to rattle me. Even more unsettling was noticing that Cheryl’s mother passed away on a birthdate shared by my father and a friend who was once dear to me, in the year I was born.
The themes depicted in this film are not novel ones. Cheryl undertakes this journey at a point she feels she is without direction and lost in her own life, and draws parallels at the end of how she has “made it out of the woods”. Starting the trek with all of her figurative and literal baggage, as she progresses on this trail she continues to shed layers, leaving the unessential items in her life behind. However, her experiences on the PCT are far from symbolic.
When you spend an unusual amount of time in nature, your experiences become easily reminiscent of our primitive ancestry. You gain a massive respect for all wild things and their ability to adapt to their environment; you forget about the hustle and bustle of modern living, and I would like to think that your instincts are heightened for it. The familiar pang of women’s intuition certainly twisted my gut each time Cheryl ran into dubious men on her journey, because oh, honey, have I been there before. Yet more important was the depiction of camaraderie and the social nature of humankind, as seen in the landmark campsites and communities that Cheryl passes through. This aspect and expression of humanity is often overlooked, though it remains one of the purest forms of affability that our species could aspire to follow.
Although humanity in its worst and best forms are portrayed throughout our exposure to Cheryl’s past and present experiences, an inhuman symbol is also seen pursuing our novice hiker. Depending on the culture and lore, a fox can represent many meanings: cleverness, intelligence, longevity, protection, wisdom, while some perceive them as a trickster. In some cultures the fox is seen as a spirit of those who are no longer with us. It can also interpreted as a guide.
Guidance is certainly something that Cheryl lacks as she grieves for her mother, resulting in choices that continue to degrade her life until she finds a guidebook for the PCT hike. She both dismisses and pleads for the fox when it appears, which reflects her tumultuous healing process. Nevertheless, the fox persists, taking on an evanescent quality by appearing when Cheryl least expects it. Only near the end of her journey does she come to believe that it is no fox, but her mother’s spirit guiding her along the way. Be it my background working with red foxes, or poorly done research by its animators, the physical appearance of this fox did not seem quite right. Most of the time it is seen with a tilted head, sagging ear and perhaps slightly underset jaw. If that is the case, it would be another way to show how her mother, enduring warmth and all, is continuously guiding her to become the woman she is meant to be.
Though I have hiked the nearby country, I have yet to seek a trail directly on the PCT. Living in the heart of the Cascade Mountain range has provided me with ample opportunity for self discovery and healing, as Cheryl encountered on her thousand-mile venture. At the end of her trip, through the old growth forests of Oregon, she comes to the Bridge of the Gods, connecting the gap between the Beaver State and Washington. It is here that her restoration is fully realized. By partaking in this challenge of self, Cheryl strives to understand how to better her life, not realizing that the trip has forced her to move at her own pace, and slow down from years on constant, reckless movement. Once she reaches her goal, she is able to look back on months of progress and finally allows herself to mend in the direction of forgiveness.
I considered my reaction to Wild over a bowl of hot mush this morning. My mind wavered between anticipation of my weekend plans and exhaustion. After a concentrated week of work retrieving field equipment – a compilation of data loggers spread across streams in a 200,000+ acre study area – I’d already clocked a solid 30 miles of hiking. Yet I knew I needed to use the momentum to find a moment of peace, and Patterson Mountain had been calling my name. Keeping Cheryl in mind, I headed out early to the trail I had climbed twice before, two separate seasons before. Now that we’ve entered autumn, I was keen to see what this mountain had in store for me, and what else I could learn at a mere 3520 feet.
Reminders of my less than perfect past rear their ugly head again as I distracted myself with golden aspen and crinkled huckleberry bushes. This is typically the mental pattern I experience on hikes, thinking of everything and nothing at once. Nonetheless, I was not expecting to reach the top of the main loop so quickly. Clearly I had gotten stronger since my first climb, and I realized on my way up how each staggered breath encouraged my limbs to push on. So on I went towards the summit. Passing sagebrush reminded me that it was the first scent I associated with Washington, followed by the raw taste of bitterbrush. Again, I was reminded of Cheryl. Her habit of centering herself with the aroma of sage when her memories became overbearing was, in my opinion, one of her most redeeming traits.
The climb to the summit had a sudden steepness to it, and I looked up to see the token pine above, which stood alone, motionless in the breeze like a stolid sentinel of the mount. It rested just beside the trail at the last push of incline before the gravel leveled out, and I was surprised by the brisk appearance of a hawk hovering on the wind above it. It tilted and dipped down with the changing airstream, out of sight. My mental rolodex of bird species reeled, and the closest I could peg it to was a Northern Harrier. Eager to see where it had flown off to, I pressed on, meeting one other man on his way down. After a brief exchange I marched up the trail, and was met with even more incline. Then, my own thoughts:
“Wow, that got steep! Definitely feeling it now. Phew. Man I’m already out of breath. I don’t remember it being this bad. Ugh. Come on, legs! Oh gods I am going to throw up. Keep going.” The Harrier popped up again then, perfectly cresting the top of the summit. I watched her float effortlessly on the air, and wondered if she was watching me. The wind took her down once more, and I become determined to find her at the top. “Okay good, it’s slightly better. Hi, lonely pine. Oh, nope not better. One last push! Okay, okay it’s over. Do NOT throw up.”
I gandered around the summit. The Harrier was nowhere in sight.
Confused, as such little time had gone by, and then mystified, I thought of Cheryl and her fox guide. Silently, I wondered if anyone would believe me if I wrote about it, recognizing life’s funny little way of connecting things. I took a moment to breathe in the mountain air, read the clouds as they passed over mountain range, and reveled in the breeze.
Revitalized, I mused over what I wanted to write about in reaction to Wild, and allowed myself a glimmer of pride in my growth since my last visit to this mountain. As I made my way back down the summit trail, however, I realized how much growth I have left to do. This hits me as I watched a man, easily in his 60s, make his way towards me.
He was jogging.
Happy trails, y’all.
“You are capable of more than you know. Choose a goal that seems right for you and strive to be the best, however hard the path. Aim high. Behave honorably. Prepare to be alone at times, and to endure failure. Persist! The world needs all you can give.”
– E.O. Wilson…and Kyla West