It follows the book. That’s probably because the author of the book, Cheryl Strayed, not only co-wrote the screenplay for the movie, she actually makes a cameo appearance (along with a very awkward promotional spot to introduce it). It’s her story of her trek along the Pacific Coast Trail, 20 years ago now, when she walked 1,100 miles one summer because… because she had nothing better to do?
Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is not only the central character in this movie, she’s practically the only character, or at the very least the only major one. Everyone else is a brief encounter, a flashback or an afterthought. It’s a good thing that Witherspoon is such a veteran actress, but still, carrying the whole weight of this film was as big a load as that monstrously oversized backpack that Strayed carried for her solo trek.
Sure, if you’re going to be walking for more than three months by yourself, you need to have lots of gear with you: a tent, sleeping bag, miniature cook stove, water, perishable foods, a change of clothes, the obvious stuff. She didn’t realize until she was already on the trek how important it was to have boots that fit properly. And how irrelevant certain items are: like deodorant. And binoculars. And condoms.
Yeah, she brought a whole package, because she wanted to be prepared for whatever casual encounter she might happen to take a sudden interest in, and that kind of impulsive reckless behavior is what caused her to embark on this severe exercise in keeping her own company in the first place. And she’s searingly honest about the casual drugs, too, and the binge drinking. She seems to take an perverse pride in her colorful vocabulary, even when talking to herself. Strayed even admits that she cheated on her husband, not just once, but several times, and can’t really even explain to herself why she did. Or explain to any of the rest of us how she can claim that she still loves him. And he, inexplicably, is the one who sends her the “C.A.R.E.” packages that are waiting for her at each rangers’ station: new clothes, fresh supplies and a little cash, along with a sweet note to encourage her. It’s difficult to fathom such devotion in someone who’s just been jilted. But then, Cheryl Strayed’s life is nothing if not complicated; who else would get a commemorative matching tattoo with your ex-spouse on the day of your divorce? That’s why she wanted to boil it down to the stark simplicity of a long, meandering journey that became an odyssey of resourcefulness and determination, which became a pilgrimage, of sorts, where at the end she arrives at the shrine of self-acceptance.
No, she doesn’t find religion out there in the Wild, except to worship at the altar of self-absorbed introspection. But she does manage to work through her personal grief over the untimely death of her mom, at 45, and the subsequent necessity to put down her sick horse. What Cheryl Strayed is actually doing out there is taking a personal sabbatical. The physical ordeal acts as an emotional drying-out, a soul-cleansing, preparing her psychologically for the next chapter in her life. In spiritual terms, it’s like a peripatetic, silent, creature-comfort-denying contemplative wilderness retreat, where, at the end, she arrives at a certain hard-earned peace with herself. Some of the rest of us might be able to come to terms with ourselves with slightly less effort.
Oh, and as a byproduct, this writer predicts that the Pacific Coast Trail is itself suddenly going to become a very popular outdoor destination.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.