Everybody Hates Cheryl Strayed

Everybody Hates Cheryl Strayed

Found this where the trail crossed the road, intended for use as a hitching aid, I suppose.
Found this where the trail crossed the road, intended for use as a hitching aid, I suppose.

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:

A hiker pokes fun at Wild in a trail logbook in Belden Town, CA. Ironic, because in the book, Strayed actually talks about hiking through Belden Town, and did not claim to hitch out.

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?

She Lied

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).

Too bad Strayed didn't venture further into the Sierras, because she missed sky-high views like this one, near the summit of Mount Whitney. Critics can't decide whether she is irresponsible for being unprepared, or chicken for skipping trail she didn't think she could handle.
Too bad Strayed didn’t venture further into the Sierras, because she missed sky-high views like this one, near the summit of Mount Whitney. Critics can’t decide whether she is irresponsible for being unprepared, or chicken for skipping trail she didn’t think she could handle.

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. Yes, someone found Wild so offensive that they made an entire website about it.
Don’t Hike Like Wild. Yes, someone found Wild so offensive that they made an entire website about it.

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.

A Walk in the Woods. An immensely entertaining read, which I consumed while weekend hiking on the Appalachian Trail also. I enjoyed this book much more than Wild, but Bryson and Katz however, are even shittier hikers than people make Strayed out to be.
A Walk in the Woods. An immensely entertaining read, which I consumed while weekend hiking on the Appalachian Trail also. I enjoyed this book much more than Wild, but Bryson and Katz however, are even shittier hikers than people make Strayed out to be.

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.

Thanks to modern technology, hikers can locate and assess the status of water sources along the trail. The internet makes it easy to disseminate water source intel, and for hikers to stay abreast of the situation ahead of them.
Thanks to modern technology, hikers can locate and assess the status of water sources along the trail. The internet makes it easy to disseminate water source intel, and for hikers to stay abreast of the situation ahead of them.

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.

50 thoughts on “Everybody Hates Cheryl Strayed”

  1. Hi Sally. I just want to say how much I enjoy reading your blog and your ideas. I imagine this blog took some time to write. I admire not just your superb writing, but also your courage in expressing your thoughts. I stopped giving my opinions or just really commenting on the internet because it made me uncomfortable receiving really negative comments.

    I really don’t like movies, so I never saw Wild and I also didn’t read the book either, but I see it over and over again that there is such a tendency to be negative of others for no really good reason just like you pointed out. So thank you for your comments pointing out in a very nice and rational way, why you think some of the hateful comments may be off base. Stan

    There is no that I can see to be (although I am a PCT section hiker).

    • Hey Stan. Glad you’re enjoying the blog, and I appreciate your comments. I think you’re exactly right- cultural “peeves” like Strayed so often boil down to simple negativity.

  2. I loved your article. I found it was excellent in every way; as well as a much-needed response to the shallow vitriol coming from so many PCT thru hikers. I love all the points that you articulated so well. All the hate seems to suggest a lack of tolerance and empathy; perhaps insecurity or ego. When I read an article like this one, it restores my faith in humanity. I hope some media picks it up and re-posts it. Keep on writing! The world would be a better place with more people like you in it.

    • Robin, thank you so much for the kind words and response! It makes me happy to know that there are other PCT fans out there that don’t take the same approach.

  3. Werent we all unexperienced at some time when we started hiking. Strayed needed to get away from society and the PCT was calling to her and in her time on trail she just happened to find herself.
    I enjoy reading your blogs and the pics are just stunning.

  4. I read the book and the strength of Cheryl is an inspiration for me. The way she cared for her mother, her vulnerability, and how she opened up her heart, all of this touched me. While I first heard of the PCT 7 years ago and it’s been my secret dream to take the long walk, reading Wild motivates me even more to set foot in Cheryl Strayed’s footsteps this coming spring.

    • Hey Jirka! I was also touched by Strayed’s vulnerability and emotional journey and I think Wild is a better motivator than people want to give it credit for. If you’ve read the book, you’re under no assumptions that this is going to be an easy walk in the woods! We hope you’ll get to experience the PCT in some form in the future!
      Happy hiking,

  5. “…Aside from bloggers nearly insane with anger and hatred for her”

    Ok, I’m not the only one who was wondering about this. 🙂

    Regarding the 1995 “critics….chicken for skipping trail she didn’t think she could handle” caption.

    It wasn’t really a case of being chicken in that almost everyone skipped the Sierras (Kennedy Meadows to Lassen) that year and/or flip-flopped around them. Brick Robbins is the only hiker I’ve heard of (and later talked to about it) that got through the Sierras in 1995 during the traditional time (early June). He told me he basically did the entire thing on snowshoes and a compass (no GPS/smartphones in those days), and nearly drowned twice at creek crossings. The worst part was getting to Tuolumne Meadows and it still being closed…no resupply box, no hamburgers at the shop, no traffic out of there.

    • Hey Craig! Thanks for commenting. Yes… there is a bit of a double standard for Cheryl vs. non-Cheryl PCT hikers. I’m glad I wasn’t the only person who picked up on it!

  6. while i have no personal rapport with Wild ( book or movie) these are excellent points in trying to get to the heart of the elitism in some thru hikers. when i started hiking it taught me tolerance and compassion. i could not wrap my head around why so many thru hikers on the AT were narrow minded and judgmental, especially the ultralighters. this article helped in my understanding of it, and i definitely think you are on to something there with the fact that much of the backlash is because she was a woman.

    i absolutely love the movie ‘the way’ about hiking the camino de santiago and when i traveled there to hike it i saw the same backlash against the film. i think you hit the nail on the head with, “thruhiking culture isn’t, and doesn’t want to be, relatable to a wide audience.”

    • Hey Karina, thanks for sharing. I agree with you in that there is a lot of elitism in the thruhiking community. I do feel that the thruhiking community is certainly an elite one, and therefore entitled to a teensy bit of elitism, given the effort and dedication must people put in. It saddens me to see it perpetuated on the AT and on the Camino de Santiago too, like you mentioned. I’m hopeful that even those these films were controversial within the communities, they bring in enough newcomers to the sport/lifestyle to show that thruhiking can still maintain its values while being inclusive of everyone.
      Thanks again for sharing!
      – Sally

  7. A rhetorical question for the author: If you were a parent, would you view Cheryl Strayed as a strong role model for your daughter? Honest about her past, yes. Emotionally vulnerable, yes. But responsible and thoughtful of her impact on others, I just don’t see it.

    I liked your drawing a distinction between hiking in 1995 versus today. While it’s true that there weren’t the resources available to today’s hikers, there were plenty of thoughtful, responsible and competent hikers then. (I hiked in ’96) Perhaps the issue is that now with thousands of hikers on the trail at a time, the importance of leave-no-trace and personal responsibility are even more crucial. And many would say that Wild seems to promote a mindset of self-absorbed individualism, rather than a sense of respect for the trail and it’s environment.

    I guess my next question is why some hold up Strayed as an inspiration, when there are so many other people, including women like Anish, doing amazing things on the trail with style and competence?

    • Hi Dave, thanks for your comment! Many of the points you bring up here were my main reasons for writing this post, and in fact, are specifically addressed in it! Points such as, do Strayed’s actions on her hike show irresponsibility and disrespect for the environment, why focus on Strayed over other hikers who have done the PCT and written about it, and others. I encourage you to go and read the post to find my specific opinion on each.
      I also do not believe that her being a ‘role model’ is relevant to the issue of me defending Strayed against unfair attacks in the hiking community (what does being a positive role model for my hypothetical daughter have to do with anything? and why do I even need to think about what my hypothetical daughter should think of Strayed?), and is in fact a criticism that is lobbed against women considered to be of morally dubious characters, but never against men.

  8. Hi Sally,

    I assumed that the book “Wild” would be shallow, self centered and poorly written from all the comments I had read about it. I read the whole thing in one overnight sitting I was so taken with it. As the story unravels it becomes clear from all the abuse she encountered from her father’s actions and from the sudden death of a mother she was completely intertwined with, that she was a very damaged individual. Damaged people often make terrible decisions that are really just substitutions for a form of suicide such as divorcing a wonderful husband, taking heroin, and jumping on the PCT without proper preparation.

    My first encounter with the PCT was in 1976 in Wa. State and I went up with a backpack that looked just like Monster, a see through “down” army surplus sleeping bag where you could actually feel the quills of the low grade duck down, no ground pad, no rain gear or tent and wearing Hush Puppy shoes (Yipes!). On my way there hitchhiking I stopped at a store and asked the guy if he had any work I could do for some food and he had me pull some weeds for an hour for some crackers and cheese since I had zero money. Yup, I know how broke and unprepared you can be just like Cheryl. I had to hike 50 miles in 2 days just to get the heck off the trail since I knew I was going to be in big hypothermic trouble if I didn’t.

    Now go 20 years later and you have Cheryl who put everything she had into things she’d need for the hike. First off, why would REI sell her a pack like Monster way up in 1995? I suspect she bought it cheap at a sporting goods store. Also, her boots were way outdated by ’95 since there were far better ones available such as the Vasque Sundowners that I bought in the ’80’s. I suspect again she didn’t buy something more reasonable for the trail since she could buy the boots she used cheaper.

    I haven’t looked into backpacking at all since the 80’s and am quite shocked to see all the PCT hikers listening to their MP3 players while hiking and even watching downloaded movies in their tents. When Walkmans first came out I used one on the trail just one time but with harp music and classical and still found music to be out of place with the natural sounds of the trail. The idea for me of hiking is to settle more and more into the depth of the natural experience rather than drag the surface experience of the city out with it. From experience when I did solo hikes I was surprised at how terrible I felt in my tent and how everything seemed to come in on my psyche. I thought it would be peace and bliss but instead I had to deal with my inner demons or whatever you want to call them. Cheryl had no technology to keep her in the surface world but instead had to deal with the depths both at night and on the trail. Modern hikers have no idea what this is like.

    For all the modern hikers who hate Cheryl and think she was whiny and self absorbed, they need to realize that there were far fewer people on the trail in ’95, she had zero access to technology even including weather reports, the trail angels were fewer and farther between and she didn’t have the vast trail community on the internet that exists today that she could tap into and join in with. She really did this by herself and with an understandable naivete similar to what I had in my early years on N’west trails.

    With all of that said, there are those who say she is a total fraud and never even did the hike or did far, far less than she had said. There are reasons I could believe that. Number one is that if you can’t even budge a pack off the floor you certainly are not going to be able to hike several miles with it in your first few days especially making climbs up into the mountains. #2 If you look at photos of what the pack looks like today I can’t imagine a pack looking in that good a condition after going 1,110 miles filled to the gills with 65# of stuff. She says she still uses it to this day. It should have one heck of a lot of wear spots on it from constant abuse. From experience, these packs have metal pins that attach straps to the metal frame and those pins don’t last that long until they break. #3 Her saying that her nails turned black and then she pulled them off, that I can’t imagine having 6 toes in that condition and not getting serious infections or having to leave the trail #4 Seems mighty convenient to 20 years later write the story since it would be difficult for anyone to backtrack as a fact checker that far back about her story plus having the internet at her convenience plus the stories of lots of other hikers, she could fabricate the entire story and still sound credible. For her to have makes and models of cars that stopped for hitchhike rides and other unlikely details I can’t imagine her having written such things in her journal. Also, I would think that if she relied on her journal for writing the book that she would have made her journal available as a reference.

    Thus her story could be real, could be embellished or could be bogus but I still enjoyed reading it since I could relate to an awful lot of it being the pre technology often solo hiker that I was. I watched an interview of her and she finished with the comment that a person doesn’t have to have the latest technological equipment or even know anything about backpacking….just get out there and do it. Oh Lord! How many people have gotten into serious trouble on the trail from listening to this foolish advice!

    Good job on your blog and we’ll probably never know the truth about how legit Cheryl’s accounts are.

    • Hi Tom,
      Not quite sure what to make of this, but I will say this: There is certainly more volume in Wild than there is on this blog, and no one has ever accused me of not hiking the PCT. It’s still fresh in my mind, and I have a lot of it recorded through photos and an app, so if someone pressed me for similar details, I supposed I could go back and check. If I had no digital tracking methods and only a diary? Oh and it had been years since I’d done the hike, sure, it would be pretty difficult to provide really concrete details that would keep doubters at bay. There’s two sides to this credibility coin.
      You’re the first person to bring up the information about gear. I’ll let you know that I backpacked before but when I loaded up my PCT pack (different from a week long adventure on the AT) with food and water I was downright shocked with how heavy it is. I couldn’t believe I would be lugging it around for 5 months, much less more than a few minutes. Somehow I managed and hiked hundreds of miles with it on. This is not at all uncommon and it’s the last thing I would be skeptical about of Strayed’s experience.
      My pack from the PCT, although put through similar abuse, isn’t completely demolished. That stuff is built to LAST, and it’s remarkable how if you brush some of the dirt off it doesn’t look as damaged as it should. Combine that with the fact that there was a lot less global outsourcing back then, especially in manufacturing, and it’s not at all hard to believe that it’s still alive and in good condition.
      At this point, I really haven’t seen a compelling reason to doubt her, because the same things could be thrown at me and they haven’t. I also think that there’s a lot of pointless skepticism being fueled by judgement (and worse) going on here, and I’m a bit weary of counteracting it.
      I appreciate you sharing the link and am curious to know if this changed your point of view on the whole… debate.
      Thanks for having this conversation with us here, even if we don’t necessarily agree.
      – Sally

      • I think it’s more the weight of the pack thing. I have heard anywhere from 80+lbs for her packweight. Lowest belevable amount that it could be is around 65lbs. I’d honestly practically say for her to do it it couldn’t have been much over 50lbs, and that is still heavy as hell. I carried about 85lbs when deployed, and I was in amazing shape, and not climbing mountains in that, and it damaged me physically, and that was only one tour. Sorry, but she isn’t hiking with 80lbs, just not happening. I was in top shape, max PT score, ect, and my weight was brutal.

        I also did an Appalachian Trail thru hike in 2010, pack weight was right at 30lbs with food and water. I’ll hit the PCT with a base weight of around 10lbs. Still going to suck carrying that with all the water added in, but it will be doable.

        A woman with an 80lb pack? Not happening, doubt even with a 60lb pack, that’s still plenty pushing it. Many things in there just struck me as false if you have done any long distance hiking at all(you general, not you in particular), but like I mentioned, the monster pack was the big one. You aren’t making any serious miles with that kind of weight in a desert environment, not even the 5 she claimed. Been there, done that.

        • Hi Aaron,

          I can’t find anything about her pack weighing 80+ lbs. Must be hearsay. Cheryl says the pack weighed between 50 and 60+ pounds. Given the nature of the gear she had (i.e. nothing lightweight or ultra light) and taking into account the weight of a full supply of food and water, I’d find this believable in my experience with long distance hiking.

  9. This is how I feel. I was inspired by Wild. It’s pretty obvious that she has little idea what she’s doing. It’s not a “Hey, go out in the woods and find yourself” story or a “this is how you hike the PCT” story. It’s just her story. I also like that you brought up A Walk in the Woods. I think women have different expectations on them then men and people tend to make a huge deal out of her misguided past, not knowing how she can forgive herself. If she hadn’t, she might as well have tried to kill herself, which perhaps is part of the reason this inexperienced hiker was out on a trail she knew little about. People like to demonize suicide but it seems to me, that they also demonize the alternative – forgiveness. For me, depression is always about intense guilt, shame, and self loathing. Books and stories that encourage me to let that baggage go are inspiring. I don’t understand why people want to feel that only their experience, their preparation, their ideas are the only way to experience things. Everyone wants to have an opinion. Here is mine – if you are outraged by the fame one woman receives for doing something in her life that briefly crosses over something you have done in yours (in this case hiking the PCT), spends time writing it out, getting it published, and promoting it then the outrage you feel reeks of jealousy. If you are hiking the PCT or AT or any trail for fame, then you are only dong a quarter of the work to get that recognition. You need go above and beyond the hike, to the actual writing, above and beyond the writing to seeking a publisher and risking rejection, to getting a publisher to risking no one buying the book. She put herself out there in many literal and metaphorical ways. And it wasn’t about the trail. It was about the journey. She could have been walking through cities and it wouldn’t matter. What mattered about this story was that the time and isolation she had gave her insight into her past and how she was going to move forward from it. Judging someone on their personal journey, to me, says that your life evolves around judgement (of both others AND yourself) and that you likely have been unable to forgive yourself for something, to move on from something, or to liberate yourself from something. Thank you for writing this. I was so disappointed to see the massive hate blogs when I searched Cheryl Strayed.

    • Hi Dana,

      Thank you so much for this. Not just because you’re not another crazy person screaming at me for factual validation of Cheryl Strayed’s hike, but for your thoughtful, articulate response.

      I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that, like you said, women are judged more harshly, especially when it comes to their character. And this, “People like to demonize suicide but it seems to me, that they also demonize the alternative – forgiveness.”

      Her forgiveness seems like a huge part of the reason people hated her. It’s actually one of the first questions on the book club discussion prompts at the back of the book, “How could she forgive herself?” What’s the alternative? Resigning oneself to a life of misery and shame? People do that all the time, and our society doesn’t put them up on a pedestal either.

  10. Thank you for this one sentence, which helps me with my own soon to be released second memoir. It is the “personal journey” you got hooked on. I’m all caught up in “will people find my book boring?” and then realized as I read your post that of course, it will be my personal journey they follow and will ultimately like or dislike. Not the backdrop or the location.

    In other news, the word “heroine” is now appearing all over the web. A heroine is a female hero. The word you’re looking for (along with the rest of the web) is the spelling of the drug heroin. No e. I can only assume no spellchecker catches this error since heroine is a word.

    • Hi Suzy,

      Hate to break it to you, but there are plenty of addicts on long-distance trails in America, both in recovery and not. There is also plenty of drug use on trail. If your main beef with Cheryl is for being a recovering heroin addict, then you have many more than one hiker to hate on.

      Good luck on your “personal journey.” Hopefully it makes more sense than your comment.

  11. It’s not us just being negative–and by the way I did complete the PCT. From end to end. I completed the first 2,007 miles, got hurt and came back two years later, started over and completed it. This dimwit completes not even half and writes this epic adventure story over exactly what?? That she took a series of mini hikes one summer.

    Now that being said there are obvious lies all over the place. Look where she said she lost her shoe then defiantly tossed the other one. Then look at the grid map. There is no place where she couldn’t have gotten down to get the shoe, not to mention the terrain would have torn her feet to shreds with duct tape or not. It’s a lie pure and simple. Oh and before she had mega fame I commented on her facebook page about this and she deleted it. Go figure.

    There’s a million inaccuracies of where she said exit points were in towns she left in California and Oregon. And her “I could have died” drama where really technically you could but it is highly unlikely. Many of us real thru hikers don’t think she was ever on the trail at all and much was gathered from the internet. But it was a girl power go book that Oprah endorsed so never mind that she really didn’t do much of anything even if her claimed mileage was true which most of us doubt. Sure, present facts from those of us who have actually done it–we must be haters for sure.

    I don’t know what the fascination is in this country with people who hike half a trail and somehow get noticed by Hollywood for NOT completing a trail. IE Bill Bryson as well. But it just goes to show our people would rather be entertained with myth as long as the myth is propagated as reality when it isn’t.

    • She didn’t hike the whole trail- but to get upset at that is missing the point. She never planned to. She did leave the trail a lot, but her story isn’t about thruhiking glory. And so then why lie about it? She could have easily written the same story about hiking in pieces anywhere.

      I also think there are plenty of places on the trail I could have thrown anything and not been able to retrieve it. There are definitely steep sections and plenty of ridgebacks in SoCal.

      Then there’s the guy who hiked in sections with her that year. He wrote about his/their hike on the PCTA blog. So is he lying too? Just to prop Strayed up?

  12. I just finished reading the book and I found it inspiring. I have done day hikes and started long distance running, and i appreciated and related to the centering aspect of spending time alone with a physically challenging endeavor. While not everyone will be inspired by the words of her story, it’s perplexing that people voice such strong feelings about them. I googled “Greg” and found an article, “I Am Greg,” written by him, in which he verifies her tale and speaks very fondly of Cheryl. Thank you for writting this blog. We need to tear each other down a little less these days and give each other props where ever we can.

  13. Whoa, Sally, I was with you until your harsh and 100% inaccurate response to Suzy. She didn’t say anything against afflicts – wth did you read? She was correcting your typo of heroine instead of heroin. Wow.

  14. Whoa, Sally, I was with you until your harsh and 100% inaccurate response to Suzy. She didn’t say anything against afflicts – wth did you read? She was correcting your typo of heroine instead of heroin. Wow. Read before you flip out on someone who was in fact thanking and complementing you.

  15. Oh Jesus, why would anyone be so invested in Cheryl Strayed? Someone loved wild so much they wrote a long indignant article professing her greatness. The reason a lot of people dislike her including people who would never hike the PCT is because her story isn’t that unique or amazing. To bring up the feminist movement claiming people’s response to this book is silly. Sure, it’s possible some people hate her because they’re sexist. Although, I think it’s more likely people dislike her because it’s another case of an educated white person doing what many have already done and getting celebrated for it. That’s not exactly feminist. Yes, this woman struggled with typical life issues and made mistakes, there’s nothing wrong with that. Her lack of modesty concerning being an average person is what bugs people so much. I get it, watching her mom die and hiking for a few months are the two hardest things she ever had to go through. And omg her mom wasn’t wealthy and used food stamps!! The poor educated pretty white woman, what a rough life. What a survivor … This book is so self aggrandizing. She is not some amazing survivor as she paints herself, she’s a woman who went backpacking for a few months after she stopped doing heroin. Also four years after her mom died. It’s just very common for privileged white people who haven’t struggled much in life to overinflate their ego and tell everyone about the few things they overcame. Who cares? People would like her a lot more if she didn’t pat herself on the back so much for being a pretty average person.

    • No, Kell, I didn’t love Wild so much I wrote “a long indignant article professing Cheryl Strayed’s greatness.” I wrote a post in response to adamant hatred of Strayed within the thruhiking community.

  16. Hi there. Came across your writing Google searching Wild. I didn’t realize how much hate was expressed towards the book. Although, people seem so fast to bash more than praise. I’m not a hiker at all but I personally loved the book..enough to want to find the trail during my roadtrip up the coast…and admire all those who take on the trail. I guess when you experience pains that are similar to those in books or people, you have an appreciation for the characters.

    Your writing was so interesting and glad I came across it. Cheers <3

  17. This post is awesome. I cannot understand why people tear her down so much. She never EVER claimed to have hiked the entire PCT, neither did she ever claim to be the best at it. The book is even called “Wild: A journey from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail”. All she claims is to have had a healing journey through 1000 or so miles of the PCT. To me the book resonated because I see the healing in nature that she did, I am also a stage 3 cancer survivor and her understanding of the pain cancer can cause hit the nail on the head for me.

    People just seem to hate the fact that her book and movie made her famous. I’m sorry but no person (male or female) who just simply wrote literally about the milage and how fast they covered the ground or how ultralight their pack was would have a very interesting book would they! Equally her book does not take anything away from a thru hikers achievements they are two completely different things.

    Further to that people calling out the weight she could possibly have carried based on the fact she is a women is infuriating. We are not her, we don’t know what she is capable of carrying but I do know that at the beginning of hikes I always have way to much gear no matter how prepared I am. You manage to carry much more than you expect you could for a short period of time until you ditch a heap of it in the trash.

    You also hit the nail on the head with the responses to BB’s book/movie being much more positive despite them having far less preparedness or understanding of environmental issues.

    And to the guy asking if Strayed would be a suitable role model for our hypothetical daughters, my answer is: Yes absolutely, and our sons. Any one who can look inside their darkest corners and overcome the many challenges Strayed did with such honesty, despite knowing how she would be judged by the world (as has been proven by all the harsh criticism she has received) is strong, courageous and emotionally capable and makes a worthy role model. But I also agree that this is a ridiculous question and one that is never asked of men…. Example: 45.

    Some people have never battled mental health and I think it leads to a lack of understanding in how hard that is to overcome. Perhaps that is why some people can’t see her achievement or the importance of her story.

  18. Thank you for writing this article. I’ve been a hiker since I was 13 years old and I was a Girl Scout and I’ve continued hiking at least 2 or 3 times a month all my life (and I’m in my middle 30’s by now). I’ve hiked the Road of Santiago in Spain two times and other trails in Mexico, Peru and Argentina. So I’d like to think I’m an experienced hiker. I found the book Wild in my local library just this year and I thought it seemed interesting so I picked it up. I read it in maybe 3 or 4 days and I liked it so much that I gave it to my mother who also read it in less than a week. I think the book is not about hiking, it’s about a personal path that a woman had to take in her life. Hiking was the way she did it, but I think the book is more about love, about family, about growing as a person, about overcoming tragedies and bad times. Hiking was a very interesting part of the journey but it was not the real reason of the book. As a hiker I found it very endearing and exciting and I was moved by Cheryl’s experiences. I was very surprised to see so much hate towards her when I searched for her online. The only thing I believe is that every book speaks to every reader in a different way and for me Cheryl found her way into my heart because I could relate to her in so many ways. So in brief, I didn’t like the book because it was about a hike, I liked it because it is about a woman’s journey and I feel related to it. The hiking was a plus. Thanks for your entry and excuse my english, it’s not my languaje.

  19. What are you talking about. You hiked the PCT and can’t see where she is clearly. . . well . . . lying? A lot of these “angry bloggers” are pointing out elevations that don’t match, areas that aren’t accurate and let’s not even get started on her self glorified misrepresentations of “I could have died nonsense.”

    I’m going to chime in as this woman needs to be called out.

    I was a thru hiker on the PCT. My trail name was “Runningwolf” and is on the 2600 miler list on the pcta.org in 2012. And signed on the trail registers. Right to Canada. I also attempted in 2010, made 2007 miles and had to quit–injury. Not a big deal but I ran out of time before the snow in Washington. I didn’t even begin to start my written work of the account until I did complete the trail. From A to B. I started over from mile zero the second time.

    Strayed is despised by thru hikers. Many of us question whether she was even on the trail. There are many things that she claims that are far fetched for anyone who has actually done it.

    Lost a shoe and then defiantly tossed the other? The path would have torn her feet up. And we would all like to know where it occurred? Not in the area she was talking about for sure. 99.9% of the ridges don’t have that steep of a slope where you could not have scurried down and gotten it. And she didn’t realize her shoe was loose to begin with? The paths aren’t that narrow–what force with walking would have tossed it that far? The areas she is speaking of simply don’t have that steep a slope for that to have occurred.

    She almost died of thirst did she? Where? There are a few (like 2-3) where you go 20 miles- 30 miles between water–if there weren’t trail angels leaving caches. Can’t speak for 20 years ago but they have been there for years when I went through. I missed a cache on a 29 mile stretch just past Old Station on Hat Rim. Walked right by it in a zone. I was very uncomfortable for about four hours. I didn’t “almost die of thirst.” Even at 104 degrees.

    Parts were “impassable.” Due to snow I assume. And they aren’t–they are just slow and hard. We went through them and she didn’t. In 2010 the snow was record in the Sierras. That record was broken a year later in 2011. People made it through the Sierras. I did. Others did.

    1100 miles from the Mojave to Washington. That would have been about 1500-1600 actually. So she skipped a lot. She did not do the Bataan death march. She section hiked–taking an entire summer to do 1100 miles. Got to rest a lot and hitch hike or bus between sections. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t try to over dramatize it Cheryl. You didn’t do an arduous journey. You took a vacation with hikes in-between. Even those of us who completed the entire trail didn’t have nearly the drama you claim to have had.

    She didn’t walk the distance daily like we did. She didn’t even complete half the trail. Her tales just don’t add up. But it was “girl power” for Oprah …

    Do some research on the trail itself. Hell, get a terrain map and look for the cliffs that are supposedly there where she couldn’t regain her shoe. Then you decide whether she placed in an event of great hardship or is guilty of hiker stolen valor. Oh by the way, years ago I chimed in on her facebook page and commented asking her where exactly she lost her shoe and she deleted the comment. How about that? Sure, pal, I’m an elitist thru hiker who is just angry and calling her out for making up ridiculous stories.

    • “Oh by the way, years ago I chimed in on her facebook page and commented asking her where exactly she lost her shoe and she deleted the comment. How about that?”

      As if you were the first person to comment on her page asking her that question.

      The point is it doesn’t really matter if she skipped a lot, if she was in danger, if she hiked everything she said she hiked. The trail was incidental to the emotional journey she took in her book. If you read the book, you would know that.

    • I’m not sure you read the book yourself, Mr Wolf. Cheryl’s shoe was OFF when it fell off the cliff, as she was resting her feet and letting them breathe; it did not fall off through some sort of walking accident, as you aver here. And nowhere in the book does she claim she “almost died.” Perhaps you should cite some page numbers or something. You sound like a very angry boy, not a rational, thinking man. Did she really hike the parts of the trail she claims to have done? Nothing you have ranted about convinces me she didn’t. Claiming that you know the exact spot where her shoe fell is absurd, as is claiming that she could have gone after it. If she felt it was too dangerous, she shouldn’t have gone after it. If she felt the snowpack was too deep and treacherous for her to get across, she was right to go around it. On one hand, you claim that she was an unprepared idiot who had no business being there, and on the other, you feel her decisions to not risk herself more than she was capable of managing make her, what–a big cowardly baby? Doesn’t making decisions not to get herself killed out there mean that she was making some smart decisions? It’s a bit ridiculous to get all upset about how she shouldn’t have been there at all because she could have endangered First Responders had she had an accident (which is, of course, true for every person who goes out there), and then also get angry when she avoids bits that could, realistically, endanger her, and by extension, those very same Responders you’re supposedly so concerned about. Your arguments are circular and so full of petty fury that your tone itself is the biggest reason to doubt your own assertions.

  20. The hate isn’t surprising at all but it is ridiculous and says more about those unleashing their wrath, than it does about Cheryl.

    There are three very common things at play here.

    1. Niche hobby gatekeeping. Typically by men. Everyone likes to think they are special with their hobby and you aren’t a real thruhiker, gamer, Star Wars fan if you don’t follow their arbitrary rules to be one.

    2. She’s a woman who did bad things to her man and then had the gall to forgive herself! There goes society! Apparently we are ok with rapist celebrities and pedophile politicians when they are men, but when a woman cheats on her man it’s time to stone her. Add the drugs to that and she is the devil!

    3. Jealousy. She received money and fame for doing something other people only get pats on the back for.

    As for the complaints about lying and self absorption. It’s a story about herself, written for an audience. Of course, there are lies and exaggerations. She’s an author, it’s called creative license. It’s not a historical document. Although they are also full of lies and exaggeration.

  21. I am a fairly average hiker, having hiked in the Himalayas, South America, Middle East and the U.S..
    My comment is just this: I give credit to Cheryl for what she did.
    No one is perfect. So for some people to downplay her hike is just not really understanding what She was all about.
    As for writing books, making money and being a celebrity is not the greatest bad thing. The important thing is for a person to be civil and care about being humane.

  22. Hi Aaron, I have hiked/backpacked for years with a woman who is literally from Siberia. She was already over 60 years old when I met her and she is shorter than 5 feet tall. We have weighed her pack at 60 lbs.+ at the trailhead. She has completed incredible peaks: Rainier, Whitney and many more with heavy packs. She had knee surgery a few years ago, so perhaps she should have carried less, but she is back up to crazy climbing and mountaineering most of us would never dream of and she’s in her 70’s. Just because you can’t imagine it, does not mean it isn’t happening every day out on the trail.

    • You make a good point. We hiked with a guy who was skin and bones and had a 50 lb BASE WEIGHT for his pack. People wouldn’t stop asking him about it and he always professed to be perfectly fine with it. He was very fast on the trail and finished in very good time in spite of what most of us saw to be a pointless amount of excess weight. He also seemed to be just really, really happy to be hiking all day and gave no sign that he was beyond his physical limits.
      Thruhiking culture has best practices for sure, and I’m not at all disagreeing with any of them. If I were to do it again I would definitely be more stringent on weight, and other things. However they are “best” practices for thruhiking and certainly not “standard” practice for everyone who sets foot on the trail by any means. Seemingly average humans are capable of remarkable feats. We’re accustomed to such feats being legend. When they aren’t, and are happening outside the boundaries of fame or even recognition, it confounds us.

  23. One person has been documented to have made it through the June Sierra snowpack in 1995: Brick Robbins. No one else. It was bad that year. Worse than 2011. You can easily research this yourself.

  24. Hi Sally, I loved your article and I am sorry for referencing a comment by “Suzy” from way back in Nov 2016. I think she was trying to let you know you have a couple of typos in your section about Cheryl supposedly being an addict and cheat. The drug is “heroin,” but in that section, you article spells it “heroine,” as in: a heroic lady. Thank you again for this article. The harsh treatment by men, culture, and the media of women doing brave, traditionally male things will probably never end. But it is outrageous. “They” are threatened by a strong female that owns her mistakes, her sexuality and her choices. I would consider her a brave role model for my daughter and just hope my child never suffers the things that caused Cheryl to seek heroin as her escape.

    • Hi, thanks for all of your feedback, I appreciate it. I have corrected those typos and certainly feel bad about my comment back then, but I’m not about to delete it and pretend like I didn’t overreact. We all make mistakes. At the time, this blog post was just starting to get picked up and I was surprised by the amount of negative feedback, then overwhelmed by it. So many people are attached to the idea of hating her, and there was not a small number of people who repeatedly commented, over and over on the post arguing about mundane details and staunchly maintaining their correctness on the subject. After a while, I got over being the nice and helpful blogger who indulged everyone and became more ruthless in my responses. Most of it was deserved, and I stand by that, some of it wasn’t and was careless.
      “The harsh treatment by men, culture, and the media of women doing brave, traditionally male things will probably never end.” I hope this isn’t true, but the possibility that it is saddens me. Let’s flip the story on its head and pretend that Wild was written by a man, let’s say his name was Sean Stratford. Stratford had a difficult upbringing in rural Minnesota, culminating in the death of his father when he was just 20. After his father’s death, Stratford’s family ties unraveled, and although he was married to his high school sweetheart at the time, the lack of emotional connections and grief overwhelmed him and he turned to drug use. Heroin (see I know how to spell it now!). He also cheated on his wife, over and over. After the drug use and infidelity reached a breaking point, Stratford and his wife agreed to part ways, though amicably. Still grappling with his father’s death and now even more lost and alone, Stratford decided on a whim to attempt to hike part of something called the Pacific Crest Trail. A wilderness trail with little notoriety in the 90s. Despite his rural upbringing and general outdoorsy-ness (spelling skills gone), Stratford really had no idea how to hike long distances. He didn’t care though, because he had nothing to lose. All he wanted was to experience something as raw as his own emotions- to force himself to come to grips with himself and his choices through solitude and not a small amount of suffering. Stratford started out on the trail, in the desert, quickly realizing his pack was way too heavy and he had no idea what he was doing. He hated himself. He hated his stupid choices and the fact that he thought hiking this trail would mean something, but he came all the way out here and besides, he had no one to run back to. So he kept going. It was so hard, the relentless sun and elements. The suffocating solitude and silence that forced him to relive all of his mistakes in his mind, day after day. To top it off, his inexperience was so apparent that he barely knew how to use his own equipment and made a lot of stupid mistakes on the trail. “This is your bed,” Stratford told himself, “and now you need to lie in it.” He took a lot of breaks, skipped parts of the trail, simply craving a warm bed, hot shower, good meal, and pure human companionship, but eventually he always got back on. The more he hiked, the better at it he got and slowly learned to be able to be alone with himself. Eventually he hiked to a major milestone along the trail and made friends with some other hikers. They were so much more experienced than he was and he was intimidated, but they encouraged him to keep going and shared some of their knowledge. Stratford attempted to hike into the Sierras. But record snowfall made the going slow and potentially life-threatening, so he, along with many other hikers, turned back and moved ahead on the trail. Stratford continued to hike alone, eventually reaching his stopping point of Cascade Locks on the Washington-Oregon border. Though he had lost a lot in his life- his family, his marriage, sobriety- he’d gained a lot too and overcome his demons, gaining a since of self-forgiveness that allowed him to be more at peace with himself and stop resorting to drug use to fill a void. He left the trail after a summer of toil, self-doubt, suffering and painful solitude, but also independence, determination, growth, and the feeling that he could change, and that now it was time to begin his life on his own terms.
      Sounds like a different story, doesn’t it? Even though the events are the same, we implicitly feel differently about Stratford from the beginning, and as the plot unfolds we grow to like and accept his character. We see how Sean Stratford was just a dude who wasn’t dealt an easy hand in life and subsequently made a lot of bad choices because he didn’t know any other way to deal with his pain. After hitting rock bottom he decided to take a journey to leave his life behind, and at the end managed to come out not so broken.
      We are all gender-biased from birth, really. And we can’t help but make subconscious judgements about others based on their gender, without knowing much else about them. Societal pressures are strong, and they impress on all of us how men and women should act, and how they should be. Many people are not able to move past this, and are made uncomfortable and/or angry when individuals don’t behave the way they “should.” Many people stay trapped in trying to uphold societal standards, rather than dealing with the cognitive dissonance.

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