“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprisingly of all, that I could carry it.”—Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Armed with only a backpack full of camping supplies and her own determination, Cheryl Strayed embarked upon a 1,100-mile solo journey on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1995. As she endured three months of harsh weather, mountainous trails, and a plethora of wildlife, Cheryl ultimately managed to find herself somewhere along the journey. In the movie adaptation released December 2014, actress Reese Witherspoon astounds as she brings this courageous woman’s adventure to life.
The movie shadows Cheryl Strayed as she hikes along the trail, day after day, but it is the flashbacks to her previous life that make the movie a powerful emotional experience. Following the loss of her mother to cancer in 1991, Cheryl quickly spiraled into a depression that ruined her marriage and eventually led her to heroin use. While never rich, Cheryl’s mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) tried her best to bring happiness and love to her children even in the darkest of circumstances. In the movie Cheryl describes her mother as “the love of her life.” Laura Dern’s performance as Bobbi embodies both the heart of a mother and the surprisingly resilient spirit of a woman living in poverty. The flashbacks also show the dissolution of Cheryl’s marriage, the heartbreaking event of putting a beloved horse to sleep, and her decision to have an abortion after an accidental pregnancy. As she delves into the miles of the PCT, she works through these memories and learns to accept the past for what it is.
One of the most admirable things about Cheryl’s story is that her journey was spontaneous. While people generally train for several months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the deserts of California through Oregon and eventually Washington, Cheryl faced the trail having never even been on a backpacking trip. She relied exclusively on the advice of workers at REI to buy her supplies, and of course consequently ran into several problems along the way. The movie humorously portrays the sheer weight of her pack, the fact that she bought the wrong kind of stove fuel and thus could not cook any of her food, and the moment she loses ones of her shoes off the cliff of a mountain. However, her courage in facing these obstacles reveals a person who seizes the day and refuses to let others tell her something is impossible.
Cheryl originally decided to hike the PCT to “become the woman my mother thought I was,” and one of the best parts of the movie is how well this change is portrayed. While she starts out upset and uncertain, Reese Witherspoon looks confident and at peace as she concludes the hike at the “Bridge of the Gods” in Oregon. This touching movie ultimately challenges viewers to find themselves along the trail of their own spiritual adventure.