★★★★★ | Wild

After her cancer-ridden mother died just aged 45, Cheryl Strayed fell to pieces. Heavily in debt and with her marriage disintegrating she developed an obsession for sleeping with countless strangers and an addiction to heroin. Her solution to finding a path to recovery and do some major soul-searching was deciding to hike alone the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that stretches some 2663 miles from California right up into Canada.

The stunning scenic route takes in some extreme terrain such as the unforgiving heat of Mojave Desert and the deep snowdrifts of the Sierra Nevada. Even though the rigours of the PCT has defeated many experienced hikers, completely green newbie Cheryl was convinced that she nevertheless would succeed. However, on day one, she could barely lift her heavy backpack that she had stuffed it with too many things that she would eventually realise were unnecessary for this arduous journey.

As she starts the long hike northward Cheryl discovers that as she can barely manage 5 miles per day, she will never walk anything like the whole distance in the 3 months she had estimated. She also quickly discovers that she has the wrong gas for her primus stove so her diet now has to consist of cold mushy oatmeal and dried fruit. Racked with pain and a body full of red sores and a pair of bloody feet, Cheryl has to fight hard not to give into her inner voice that keeps telling her she can quit anytime.

With only the occasional rattlesnake and her well-worn poetry books to keep her company and relieve the tedium and the agony, she can hardly contain herself when she finally encounters a fellow hiker en route even though the advice he imparts to her both encourages and scares her rigid at the same time. By now it has really dawned on her that she is woefully unprepared for such a massive undertaking. The only thing that seems to sustain her besides her sheer stubbornness, is a real need to ‘find’ herself again.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee armed with a script by Nick Hornby fills the journey based on Cheryl Strayed’s own memoir with flashbacks of her tumultuous and troubled past which help us understand her determination to make this trip work. Bobbi her working class mother had suffered at the hands of a physically abusive husband which somehow never dented her sheer optimism and just before her untimely death she had gone back to college to get the education she had missed out on as a child. The bond between Bobbi and Cheryl, who was just 22 years old when her mother died, was the most important thing in both these women’s lives and the reason why the death propelled Cheryl so quickly into a downward spiral.

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When Cheryl reaches the first town along the PCT which is a resting place for all hikers, she retrieves a care package that her ex-husband has mailed c/o the local Post Office. She also discovers that word has got out about her and her oversized backpack has been nicknamed ‘The Monster’ but it also elicits advice on how to discard half its contents to make it more practical.

As a lone woman on the Trail, Cheryl feels very susceptible and she views every man as a potential predator. One is a harmless roving reporter for the ‘Hobo Times’ who riles Cheryl up for insisting on calling her a hobo. Another is a kind farm worker who offers her a hot meal and a shower, and she even comes across a male hiker dipping naked in a stream who cannot get his clothes on quick enough when she appears. Her encounter with two hunters is however quite scary, but with quick thinking on her part Cheryl soon scrambles for safety.

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The stunning setting makes this heartbreaking journey such a visual treat, and the story of self-preservation of this doggedly determined troubled soul is one that will resound with so many people on so many levels. Reese Witherspoon, the movie’s star and producer optioned Cheryl Strayed’s book even before it was published and topped the NY Times Bestseller List as a vehicle for herself and to kickstart her career that has been in the doldrums since her Oscar win in 2005. It paid off big time as she totally immersed herself in the role and gave an impressive career-best performance as Strayed (even though she was 12 years older than her, and even odder still, just 9 years younger than Laura Dern who was electrifying as Bobbi her mother).

The movie is bound to do more than just make us appreciate what a talented actress Ms Witherspoon really is, as it is also bound to inspire lots of other lost souls to buy themselves a pair of hiking boots and attempt this near-impossible journey, and maybe cause a ‘traffic jam’ or two along the P.C.T. in the future.

About the author: Roger Walker-Dack
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