If Wild, the book, the movie, the world-wide phenomena, had no other virtue, the story would deserve praise for the sheer volume of reaction and thought that it has inspired. Not just on hiking, but on feminism, on wilderness, on relationships: previously unknown author Cheryl Strayed hit a chord nearly everybody recognized but nobody had ever heard sounded quite that way before
The influential review of the book, by Dwight Garner in the NYTImes, from just two years ago, is at once respectful, but also a confession, in that the reviewer makes clear that he has been, as Shakespeare would say, overthrown. Wild broke his heart, as we say in our time, and tears came to his eyes, and what can a reviewer say after that?
But not because Strayed put her life at risk, or had an insanely dangerous time outdoors.
The author was not chewed on by bears, plucked dangling from the edge of a pit, buried by an avalanche or made witness to the rapture. No dingo ate anyone’s baby. Yet everything happened. The clarity of Ms. Strayed’s prose, and thus of her person, makes her story, in its quiet way, nearly as riveting an adventure narrative as Jon Krakauer’s two “Into” books: those matey fraternal twins, “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air.”
Screenwriter Nick Hornby read this review, ordered the book, and set out to adapt it -- even before getting the assignment, though he knew as little about hiking as Strayed did when she set out.
I felt I understood the book. It wasn't about hiking, not to me. It was about grief, families, ambition, rage, disappointment and hope, and it was written with an urban liberal-arts sensibility that succeeded in placing anyone with the same set of values right there on the trail with Cheryl, screwed up, unprepared, determined to succeed in her ambition simply because there are no viable alternatives anywhere else.
But why was Strayed's story so riveting? After all, thousands of people have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Nearly everybody a person meets thru-hiking the trail is on a quest, as occasional trail companion Chris Nottoli likes to say.
What's so special about Strayed?
Surely the best overall -- and longest! -- attempt to answer this question comes from Kathryn Schulz for New York magazine. Interestingly, she frames the question much as Garner does -- at first:
People love to read about outdoor extremis and debacle, à la Into Thin Air, but books about nature in which nothing goes terribly wrong do not normally attract millions of fans. Moreover, there is a kernel of genuine radicalism in Wild — and radicalism, by definition, does not appeal to the mainstream. Outside of slave narratives and horror fiction, adult American literature contains very few accounts of a woman alone in the woods. YetWild is the story of a woman who voluntarily takes leave of society and sustains herself outdoors, without the protection of a man, or, for that matter, of mankind. It is the story of a woman who does something physically demanding day after day, of her own free will, and succeeds at it. It is the story of a working-class woman and her mind — of what Strayed thought about in the three months she spent almost entirely alone. And it is a story that ends happily in the near-total absence of that conventional prerequisite for happy endings, romantic love.
That phrase "near-total" stuck in my craw a bit, because the movie does conclude with a mention -- if not the in-person sight -- of a romantic love. To make sure Schulz was right about this interpretation I looked up the conclusion in the book, and what do you know, it's just about word for word. Strayed does mention returning to the Bridge of the Gods, where she concluded her trip, to marry a new man.
But Schulz's point -- that this was a woman's story that has to do with self-discovery, and not about being discovered -- remains central to the story. As she says:
In a culture with profoundly ambivalent feelings about independent women, it is not always clear what kind of adventures we will be lauded for undertaking, nor what kind of tales we will be lauded for telling. So why did so many people fall in love with Strayed and her story?
I asked Strayed myself a similar question, when she spoke at UC Santa Barbara a couple of years ago, hoping privately that she would say something about how her story arrived at a moment when as a people we were falling back in love with the wild and the trail. Or were at least open to stories about that, as we as a culture had not been in either of the boom times of the 80's or 90's. Sez me.
Strayed did not. In a polite but firm way she spoke of the writing itself, and of the publishing team that gave the book the best possible launch. Which wasn't what I wanted to hear, but statistics cited in a recent LA Times op-ed appear to bear our her point:
Visits to the 58 crown jewels of the National Park System — nature-based parks such as Acadia, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite — peaked in 1997, and, per capita, had declined 19% by 2010. Some who work in state and national parks have expressed deep concern to me about how school kids show up on field trips not so much eager to play, or excited to learn, but unsettled by whatever ferocious creatures might be lurking in the bushes. As stated in a news release last summer by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Getting [today's] visitors to reweigh perceived threats is an art.”
(It's been four years since those stats were published, and I like to think that the tide has turned towards respect for wilderness. Certainly I see people on mountain trails -- particularly women, many not young -- that I didn't see when I was hiking Sierra trails twenty years ago.)
But Schulz would agree with Strayed. She points out that Strayed's story -- in which she has to lose everything, and start over -- has a myth's power.
Strayed sets out on her journey after the loss of her mother (and husband, stepfather, father, and childhood home)... It is as if only the total destruction of the domestic sphere could justify a woman’s presence on such adventures. Or rather — since Strayed’s story is not fabricated — it is as if that destruction were necessary in order to secure the audience’s sympathy for a woman doing something risky and alone.
As a literary device, the destruction of the home front silences these concerns. But it has another advantage: It is universally familiar — not from stories about independent women but from stories about independent children. In real life, the death of a parent is an agonizing loss. But in fiction, that death, while nominally tragic, often marks the beginning of an adventure; it gives the hero the freedom, and sometimes the motive, to go explore an unfamiliar land. Mowgli in the jungle, Bambi in the forest, Huck on his raft, Dorothy in Oz: For any of these adventures to transpire, the parents must first be made to vanish.
Further, as Schulz says, and Reese Witherspoon, who became the heroine of the tale in the movie seconds, this is a classic American story, in that it is about a woman who had nothing, no money, and sitll and found something, in this world and in herself. Witherspoon told the LA Times:
And it was really important that it wasn't about, like, white-girl problems, you know? I told her that so many people in this world have nothing, and that's what I really responded to, that you get to the end of this movie and this woman has nothing. She has no man and no money and no parents and no job, and it's a happy ending. And that's extraordinary in this life because so many people don't know where to turn or what resources are going to lift them up out of their grief or their despair, and she did this for herself with nothing. And I felt like it could be inspirational to other people.
Which it clearly was. Thank you Reese Witherspoon, and thank you Cheryl Strayed. Especially for these concluding words:
What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I'd done something I shouldn't have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I'd done other than becuase it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do anything differently than I had done? ... What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do anything differently than I had done? ... What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?