The trailer for the movie adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild came out last week. Most of the Internet was blandly excited for the film, not so YouTube commenters. According to them, this movie will be awful.
IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO HIKING ALONE
Because the fate of a woman in the wilderness alone is always already death. Whether from coyotes or mountain men, any woman who deigns to hike by herself will die.
This of course isn’t true. Anyone who decides to attempt a thru-hike of a major trail is at risk from exposure, broken limbs, or a bear eating all your food and leaving you hungry. According to my very unscientific Google search, hiking is the third most dangerous outdoor activity after snowboarding and sledding for both men and women. Maybe everyone should just stay home.
IT’S A BETTER MOVIE IF IT’S ABOUT A DUDE
Into the Wild follows a young man’s story of wilderness survival and self-realization. He eventually dies because he doesn’t recognize nature’s brutality. Wild focuses on a woman’s story of wilderness survival and self-realization. She eventually finishes her goal and leads a relatively content life that includes a book and movie deal.
The stories are, indeed, similar. Ever since Jon Muir first hiked Yosemite, Americans have yearned for the wisdom that follows a wilderness expedition. But our culture has so few stories of women hitting the trail in a less-than-prepared state. It’s refreshing to have a female narrator who makes a rash decision and turns out okay. We need to hear more of these stories. This makes Wild VERY different from Into the Wild.
No. Just no. Cheryl Strayed was not raised in privilege. She is not Elizabeth Gilbert. She had no money. Her journey is self-funded and done on a meager budget. Not once does she compare herself to a Native American on a vision or spirit quest. Indeed, the only times when she mentions native peoples is to provide background for place names. Strayed is a writer sensitive to identity politics, though I don’t know how sensitive the director of the film will be.
This aside, Strayed’s narrative of wilderness survival and enlightenment is more in keeping with Whitman, Thoreau, or the previously mentioned Jon Muir. It’s a uniquely (male) American narrative.
SHE DID SOMETHING REALLY STUPID
Cheryl Strayed never portrays herself as ditzy: flawed, depressed, heroin addict, yes. But never ditzy.
In the travel narrative, men are allowed flaws. Indeed, departing with just a bit of jerky in your pocket is to be admired, or at least say all the men for whom On the Road is their favorite book. Deciding on a major thru-hike is considered A-OK in dude universe. Not in lady universe.
SHE’S RUINING HIKING FOR EVERYONE (ESPECIALLY MEN)
I wonder if Mr. Napolitan has read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. It follow Bryson’s journey along the Appalachian Trail, a feat for which he was not prepared. Much like Strayed, he does it on a whim (though he does take a rather out-of-shape buddy).
This comment only serves to remind us that a woman in the wilderness is ripe for critique. Bryson is a novice hiker and reflective of his flaws. Despite this, he is not considered self-important because he is a humorist and a dude; in other words, he’s someone you’d like to have a beer with. A self-reflective woman who, through a journey, changes herself is simply not a narrative our culture accepts. Things that are acceptable to change a woman: motherhood, a man, or a fulfilling job as a cupcake baker.
The fact that Strayed skips the majority of her planned route is actually quite common; indeed, there is an entire culture of “section-hikers,” people who for reasons of physical ability or limited PTO complete major thru-hikes bit-by-bit. This is okay. This is reasonable when approaching a major trail. There is no shame in seeing your limitations and accommodating for them. Indeed, she should be considered a very smart hiker for seeing this. A great way to die in the wilderness (as Into the Wild so helpfully shows us) is to see your limitations, ignore them, and press on. Strayed’s decision to cut some of her hike is actually a wise wilderness decision.
As for her personal problems: The author is correct in that Strayed is not the first person to find solace in the wilderness or to write about it. It’s quite a common narrative for people (I myself take part in my own personal wilderness narrative several times a year). But, as I mentioned earlier, Strayed is unique in that she is a woman attempting a difficult trail with little to no preparation. She is also unique in that her travel narrative is not about her taking a safe-as-houses trip to a a resort in Bali — it’s about her doing something (and here the author is right) a little stupid. But succeeding.
Men are allowed room for these types of decisions ALL THE TIME. Into the Wild. 127 Hours. Into Thin Air. Hatchet. The Call of the Wild. All of these position men as capable of handling wilderness when they are not at all prepared for it. Strayed starts her journey on a mad impulse, which is the start to many great male-centered travel narratives. And she turns out better than okay.
Though in fairness to our commenter: Any trip in nature should be attempted with caution and preparation. If you do want to hike the PCT like Strayed, train, buy the right gear, and be prepared to quit. Which is, as I mentioned previously, a very helpful ability in the wilderness. Of course, if you’re going alone (this goes for people of any gender), tell someone where you’re going, where you think you’ll be setting up camp, and when you expect to be home.
Look, I can’t help but wonder if all the critique of Strayed’s work comes from a place of sexism. Women simply are not allowed to hike by themselves for a day, much less for months on end. This is absolute b.s. I am a lady, and I’ve hiked and backpacked in remote places by myself plenty of times.
I realize that YouTube commenters are the worst of the Internet, but let’s not kid ourselves: Any woman who says she is going alone in to the woods will be questioned.
This past year, I did an overnight at Dolly Sods Wilderness (one of several solo trips I took this year). It was a 20-mile round-trip hike through remote wilderness. As I arrived back at the parking lot, a man asked me how far the trail head was. I told him it was another mile by foot up the road. He asked what I’d been doing. I said I’d been hiking by myself. 20 miles. “You did this by yourself?” Yes. No one carried me. And that’s okay.