Cheryl Strayed is the most hated person on the Pacific Crest Trail. She, her book and movie adaptation Wild are little more than joke fodder.
On the trail Strayed and Wild were barely mentioned among thruhikers, except when it came to putting them down. Nothing major, sarcastic comments here and there, but certainly nothing positive either. One hiker joked multiple times, “Yeah, I read Wild every night in my tent before I fall asleep. I just ask myself, ‘What would Cheryl do?'”
One memorable example was a conversation I overheard between three thruhikers around mile 100 of the PCT. While two of them shit on the book and Strayed’s experience in the typical, uninspired way, the third complained about the non-linear progression of the movie, not seeming to understand the concept of a flashback.
And then there’s this kind of thing:
Non-hikers, on the other hand, ask me, all the time, if I’m hiking because I saw Wild. Though it’s true, I wouldn’t be on the PCT right now if I hadn’t seen the movie, I shirk the assumption behind it. It’s like saying I watched two and half hours of Reese Whitherspoon, grabbed my car keys and headed to REI to outfit my hike. It’s like saying I’m hiking because I want to recreate her experience for myself, or that I couldn’t possibly have another motivation for hiking for months of my life.
Nearly halfway through hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I’d had enough of this bizarre secret I was hiding. If I was going to get asked if I was only on the trail because I saw Wild, I might as well read the book too so I could back myself up. I got a Kindle copy of Wild and read a bit each night in our tent before falling asleep.
As I started to read, I couldn’t wait to get plenty of ammo for my for- against-Wild discussion, but after about a third of the way through, I was at a loss. I kept thinking to myself, This is it? This is what people hate so much?
There had to be more.
Wild Surprised Me
Right away, reading Strayed’s story demolished the negative image of her I’d built. Of course it was much more authentic than the movie was (isn’t that always the case?), but immediately I was dropped into the crux of the narrative as she cared for her mother, who was quickly succumbing to cancer. So commonplace was the Cheryl-bashing on the trail, that I was embarrassed by the hostility around her it had created and I felt like an intruder as I read the account of her mother’s painful death and how her entire family fell apart.
I was also more than a little shocked to discover that Cheryl was only 26 when she did her hike. I just assumed she was Reese Witherspoon’s age, about 38, because I watch movies and assume things. She was the same age as I am now, and close to the age of most other thruhikers. People were so busy tearing her down out there, that they didn’t have time to notice the similarities.
Another surprise was that I was bored by Strayed’s account of actual hiking; through it, I was experiencing the first part of my hike- the one filled with physical pain and self doubt- all over again. She was constantly exhausted and hurting. It was different and much harder than what she had pictured. Indeed, I thought. Been there, done that.
I expected to be riveted by her account of hiking the trail, but in fact, it was the opposite. It was her personal journey that kept me invested night after night in the tent. Just like actually hiking miles of trail every day hadn’t been as exciting as I thought it would be, it was the same for reading about it.
Why does everyone hate Wild?
One thing I heard about from particularly talkative Strayed-haters on the trail, was that she exaggerated, misrepresented or lied about the events and details of her hike.
I looked hard for verifiable sources that could elucidate exactly what and how Strayed distorted the facts of the memoir. Aside from bloggers nearly insane with anger and hatred for her, there was no unbiased, fact-checked source about her distortions.
There are Better Stories about the PCT
I’m sure there are, but they’re not that accessible outside of the long distance hiking community. Strayed’s is one of the first stories to relate to a wide audience, and I’m 99% sure that’s the real issue- thruhiking culture isn’t, and doesn’t want to be, relatable to a wide audience.
Thruhiking by its very nature is an exclusive community. Unfortunately for traditionalists, I don’t think it’s destined to stay that way. When it comes down to it, any story of the Pacific Crest Trail is likely to inspire people to do the same. Living outside and hiking a beautiful trail for 5 months is crazy and freeing in a way that many people can easily understand and isn’t something only long distance hikers should be able to do because they’re lucky enough to be already exposed to it.
No one owns the outdoors, and everyone has a right to responsibly and respectfully experience it. Be an ambassador, not a hater.
She Didn’t Hike the Whole Trail
From just a few pages in, when Strayed details her preparations, it’s clear that she never planned to hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail. She gave herself 100 days to walk from the town of Mojave – already more than 500 miles north of the official start of the trail- to Cascade Locks, the border between Washington and Oregon. She may have been overzealous in her ambitions, but who hasn’t been when dreaming of hiking a trail for months of their life?
Strayed made another significant skip in her mileage on the trail- she skipped the Sierras. Due to record snow pack in 1995, she was critically underprepared to tackle the snowy and icy conditions of the high Sierra sections of the trail. In the book, she takes some lessons on using an iceaxe from another hiker, attempts to use what she’s learned after several days in the feet of snow and ice, but realizes that it would be too dangerous for her to continue and skips ahead (to where there’s still plenty of snow, just not dangerous amounts).
There are plenty of hikers who are a seamless part of the the trail culture, yet are not hiking the entire trail. After getting to Kennedy Meadows, the official start of the Sierras and celebratory end of the first, tortuous desert section, many new hikers joined the herd. We all commended them for their decision to skip the desert. Not once did I hear someone call them “CHERYL” or imply that they weren’t as tough as the rest of us.
She Was an Addict and a Cheater
“I didn’t feel sad or happy. I didn’t feel proud or ashamed. I only felt that in spite of all the things I’d done wrong, in getting myself here, I’d done right.”
– Cheryl Strayed, Wild
I also sense, when people lay down their opinions of Strayed, that they find it audacious of her to forgive herself for making bad life decisions. I heard a lot that her addiction to heroin was “down played.” I can understand this- “drugs are bad,” is what we’re told to believe, especially when it comes to hard drugs like heroin. It’s difficult to accept that someone could simply slip into addiction and back out without progressing through a traditional rehabilitation program, but it shouldn’t be difficult to accept that someone with a past addiction problem has now found success.
This is one of the main reasons people claim to dislike Wild, and Strayed personally, but it’s probably the most important point in the book. Making mistakes, sometimes unfathomable, awful mistakes, doesn’t make us sub-human. On the contrary, to fail and fuck up is human, and when we do, we don’t deserve to be denied forgiveness and a chance to try again.
Thruhikers are exceptionally mentally strong people with a defined sense of purpose, but they can be a little too black and white when it comes to other things.
She Was Underprepared aka Don’tHikeLikeWild.Org
I’d heard of this site before but took some time while writing this post to scope it out. I feel slightly afraid now that they’ll come after me after I publish this post- they are that vitriolic. “Was Cheryl Strayed a brave and strong adventurer or a pathetic and irresponsible wanderer?” is a particular example from the site’s introduction. The entire thing is a case study in overzealous hatred and too much free time, but also unfortunately, is how many thruhikers feel about Wild and Strayed, so I’ll have to explore this more.
Don’t Hike Like Wild, unless it wasn’t already obvious, is entirely devoted to painting Wild and Cheryl Strayed as a dangerous example of how not to hike the PCT. The rhetoric is intense and continuously blames Strayed for having a negative impact on the trail and her environment, claiming that she was deliberately irresponsible and fails to take responsibility for the impact she had on the trail.
Other than the famous shoe incident, I didn’t find many examples of her damaging her surroundings. Cheryl seems to observe proper backcountry measures (apart from the fires she builds to burn pages of books she brings, but I see experienced thruhikers build fires all the time). In the same argument I see the authors commending Bill Bryson for writing about his attempt at an Appalachian Trail thruhike.
Please. On their first day, Bryson’s hiking partner, Stephen Katz, deliberately littered the trail with gear and human food (a huge no-no) because he was too tired and out of shape to handle the weight. Seriously, get your facts straight.
I wonder if the point of Don’t Hike Like Wild is to dissuade potential Wild readers from trying to hike with minimal experience. Yet have I to meet a hiker who claims to have watched the movie and made a snap decision to thruhike the PCT. Unfortunately, dissuading inexperienced hikers isn’t accomplished as much as is constantly tearing Strayed down over any aspect of her experience they can find, leading to much hypocrisy.
She’s Emotional, and perhaps, She’s a Woman?
On our fourth night on the PCT, we assembled with some fellow hikers in the restaurant of the small mountain community of Mount Laguna. It had only been a few days on the trail, so there wasn’t too much to talk about yet. The conversation turned to Wild, perhaps spurred on by a question from a non-hiker.
“Someone gave me the book when they found out I was coming out here to do the trail,” said a fast moving Australian. “I couldn’t get past the first couple of pages. It’s just emotional drivel.”
This is a pretty strong field of discourse in third wave feminism right now; the relegation of emotions and women’s emotional experience to substandard narratives. But I really don’t want to go into third wave feminism, and that’s not the point of this post. There’s no denying that Wild is emotional. “Drivel” is personal opinion.
Curiously, there are similar sentiments for Yogi and her eponymous guide to the PCT, even as many hikers read it and take it along with them. Not that Yogi is emotional, but that she’s doing the trail wrong and has messed up a lot of traditional trail culture with her meddling and influence. What is with these women? They hike a trail that men have been hiking forever and as soon as they do they have to gab about it and go write a book…
Trail Culture: Then and Now
I can’t imagine going for days without seeing another thruhiker, let alone only seeing the same 10 people the entire time. I can’t imagine getting through dry Northern and Southern California stretches of trail without my PCT water report, which I’m able to download to my phone whenever I have internet access. And I can’t imagine getting ready for my trip without having done hours of research online. So much of my free time leading up to the trail was spent reading online articles about how to resupply while on the trail, the best places to stop, and of course, what gear to buy.
The point I’m trying to make is, a lot of people complete thruhikes these days, comparatively. Yes, Strayed was inexperienced as a hiker, but without having tons of backpacking experience anyway, there weren’t resources available to her at the time to prepare the way I and tons of other thruhikers I know did. It’s worth mentioning that I was over prepared for blisters, and I got them anyway, so it’s not all about preparation. The trail will get you. Somehow.
So after all this it feels like I’ve mounted a defense of her, and I’m fine with that. Having hiked 1,500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, I can recognize the achievement in completing the trail, but also in simply being out there for months at a time, no matter how far one walked. And the fact that Strayed did much more than that, she inspired many would-be hikers and adventurers with her story, is something to appreciate, even if the rest of the community hasn’t come around to it yet.