By Avi Davis
Twenty minutes into Wild, a film which relies largely on flashbacks to round out its full story, I began to experience a few flashbacks of my own.
There I was in southern England, facing a slope which looked as though it rose at a 70% gradient. The wind was kicking hard at my back and the rain had begun to pelt. I was alone and my feet, already callused from five weeks of walking, felt as though they were sodden from either sweat or blood. My back, aching from carrying a 50 lb pack for five hours, didn’t think it could bear any further strain.
But…. I started climbing.
An hour later, drenched and heaving for breath, I reached the top and with an elated whoop looked triumphantly down at the path I had just conquered. My victory jig though didn’t last long. That’s because it brought me round to face the path looming ahead ……… which I saw climbed yet another mountain much like the one I had just conquered- and then three following it.
I think it was the first time I had openly wept since I was child.
Which is all to say, I felt quite an empathy for Caroline Strayed, the heroine of Wild. Played by the diminutive Reese Witherspoon with great pluck, Wild is the story of a woman emotionally and psychologically devastated who seeks redemption by steeling herself to walk solo along the 2,500 mile Pacific Crest Trail on the U.S. west coast – a trek which begins in the arid Sonoma Desert on the California/Mexico border and ends in the damp Cascades of Washington State. Over its course, paralleling the Western seaboard, the Trail traverses parched desert, sparse chaparral, snow covered passes and deeply forested canyons. It is one of the most grueling long distance paths in the world and those who complete it are regarded as having reached the top tier of the world’s long distance hikers.
There are two journeys competing for our attention in Wild. The first is the account of the trek itself which Strayed undertakes as a bumbling neophyte. The second, and the more interesting, is the chronicle of her descent into drugs, prostitution and self abuse following the early death of her deeply loved and missed mother – all of which precedes and then occasions the trek.
The walk itself starts off in blistering heat along a desert path as Strayed encounters sunburn, rattlesnakes, coyotes and desert foxes. In her first days she meets with a ranch hand who invites her to stay the night in his house and we can feel her deep trepidation as she accepts. It turns into a benign invitation and the ranch hand and his wife become her friends. Along the trails she encounters an assortment of men, some of whom seek to befriend her, some to seduce her and one , menacingly to assault her. But as the trek proceeds she gathers confidence and a level of self realization which is only possible when you pass through a monumental struggle alone.
Her mother looms as the guiding light in her life and it is to her that Caroline dedicates the walk.
The second journey in this film revolves around the life of dissipation into which Caroline sinks as her marriage crumbles, her friends and family abandon her and she turns to drugs, junkies and casual sex for fulfillment. It is a harrowing argosy because as she passes through it, she can see the life her mother wished her to live, slowly fading away. Her ultimate redemption can only achieved, she rightly perceives, by passing through an ordeal which will test her faith in her self, in humanity and in an unknown future which awaits her on the other side.
Much of the story of the walk I recognized as authentic – the daydreams and dueling conversations held alternately with friends and foes; the endless juke box of music – remembered songs and melodies, called upon to keep oneself entertained and from going mad; the deep longing for ice cream and anything with sugar; the constant regrets about not bringing essential camping or walking gear; the improvisations made when things break or are lost; the intense anticipation of reaching a destination where letters and food supplies await; the fear of camping alone on a windswept plain with only the howls of animals as company; the deep camaraderie which develops with others met along the trail and most important of all- the gritty determination to keep going no matter what.
Witherspoon shines in the role of Strayed and gives us an entirely convincing portrait of a woman in deep turmoil but who will let few obstacles – natural or man made deter her. Laura Dern as the mother is not quite as convincing and her on screen conviviality seems at times forced although she projects enough of a life force against which Caroline’s bitter disappointment in herself can be measured.
Can a walk of this magnitude really act as a form of redemption and recast one’s life? The answer is an emphatic yes. Although I walked with none of Witherspoon’s assorted demons, I similarly began my own trek with a desire to understand myself and my purpose. The three months I spent walking across Southern England and into central England as a 24-year -old , gave me time to think and dwell on the things that mattered to me and the life I wanted to live.
In Wild, Caroline Strayed emerges from her journey a different woman, someone who has saved herself by dint of deep personal commitment and sacrifice. The self -reliance and self -confidence this has engendered now gives her the courage to shape a new life.
There may be few people who can see themselves in Caroline’s sweat sodden boots. But for those who can they will know that the inner journey can be as brutally long as the physical one and of the two, usually the one fraught with the greater difficulty.
Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone