Cheryl Strayed, like many, found in an opiate a temporary patch for life’s wretched emotional churning. Thankfully, she didn’t dance with it long enough to become physically or psychologically addicted. Instead, she sought out a different cure: solitude and physical pain on the Pacific Crest Trail. Years later, she published a memoir, Wild, about that experience. It brims with insights about memory, love, and wrestling with the self. Oprah took note, and so did Reese Witherspoon, who scooped up the rights to it right away.
“I grew up as little girl loving movies,” Witherspoon said at a Q&A for the film. “But I never in my 20 years of making movies have I ever read a script where at the end, the woman is alone, no man, no money, no job, no opportunities, no house, no car, and it’s a happy ending. I think that is revolutionary.”
A compulsion lured Cheryl to the trail after she lost her mother to cancer and then proceeded to tear her marriage apart at the seams. She fancied getting lost in thought on the hike, reworking all those ruminiations about her life she’d traced with tears into her brain to come to some sort of resolution, some ultimate conclusion. Her biggest hope was to find her way back to herself, to a more “authentic” self, after years of desperation, pain, and identity confusion. However, the trail did not offer her much time for the type of reflection she imagined. Exhaustion, thirst, and physical pain can us away from the inner world into the immediate need of the flesh. That’s probably a cure we all need sometimes.
“There wasn’t a day on the trail when that monotony didn’t ultimately win out,” she writes in Wild. “When the only thing to think about was whatever was the physically hardest. It was a sort of scorching cure.”
“Being so alone and so silent for so long gave me the opportunity to see how our brains actually work,” Cheryl said in Interview Magazine. “I think of that so often in my regular life, as I’m always interacting with people or with my computer or phone. My brain is being directed constantly in my life now, but on my hike it was left to wander. That was often maddening because it was tedious and monotonous sometimes, but then my the mind would take over, and that’s when I’d start hearing the music in my head, or I’d find myself reliving the second grade and thinking through that whole school year, or thinking deeply about people I know or things that I didn’t even know I remembered anymore.”
Cheryl was looking for redemption and forgiveness, not just for herself, but for her mother, who was magnificent, flawed, and had her life snatched from her way too young, and her father, who was deeply cruel, and, mostly, absent from her life. At different points unresolved feelings about those parents came bubbling up, and they didn’t get resolved so much as felt. Nothing ever really get resolved in life. It just keeps sweeping on, and all we can do is continue to walk with it.
The Jean-Marc Vallée directed adaptation of Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, is a lovely song of memory and music. As she struggles with each step, carrying an oversized load on her back like an over-prepared turtle, snippets of songs float through the soundtrack, and flashes of memories pounce out like turning on a TV in the middle of a show. It’s an impressive adaptation that transports the audience to a lonely trail, all alone with our fragile and durable bodies in the vast world.
Cheryl Strayed continues to write, and teaches a writer’s conferences. She lives in Portland, Oregan with her husband Brian Lindstrom and their two children. Her daughter Bobbi, who she named after her mom, played the young Cheryl in the movie.