Reese Witherspoon looks every bit the part of Cheryl Strayed in the forthcoming feature film adaptation of her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT): flared nostrils and a defined jaw, Witherspoonian signifiers of strength and determination, her small body overshadowed by Monster, Strayed’s Mini-Cooper sized backpack.
I mentally high-fived Witherspoon for producing the film and securing the lead role. The conversation about the dearth of parts available for actresses who are no longer JLaw and not yet Judi Dench is an old one, but still, unfortunately relevant. If there is a gap in parts, there is a gap in narrative. (Reese tells us more here.)
As I devoured this transformational story of a woman who hikes her way out of a personal darkness and family tragedy over the course of a solo hike from Southern California to Oregon that crosses deserts, forests and mountains, I kept thinking how unusual a story of a woman journeying on her own is — especially one who comes to no harm.
Yes, Strayed’s unending constellation of foot traumas are a kind of harm and the reader frets for her well-being as she reminds us that she is inadequately prepared for her trip. She can’t use a compass; she doesn’t bring enough water to the desert. And somehow the most nerve-wracking moments are when she needs to hitch a ride.
In The American Reader Vanessa Veselka writes about her fruitless search for the stories of teenage hitchhikers who were murdered by The Truck Stop Killer. No one who was where the girls had been in the 1980s in the US or where they were found remembers them at all. Veselka suggests: “When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends.” (For more, read here.)
The Pacific Coast Trail is a trail, but it is still a road of a kind, and Strayed’s memoir is pocked by men who carry with them the potential for danger. Near the end of her journey, a hunter, with whom Strayed shares her water because he has run out, sexually harasses her. Strayed wonders if her trip will culminate in this, overshadowing every moment of achievement and vertiginous beauty that came before because this is what might happen now. And we hope that the beloved “Dear Sugar” advice columnist will not have this as part of her back story. The potential for violence simmers between the lines.
In Veselka’s essay she writes that a lack of a variety of narratives is dangerous for anyone in the margins because “a narrative that promises more than death leads to curiosity, which leads to interaction.” In short: it leads to humanity. These thoughts followed me through what is really a memoir full of hope, and, ultimately, joy. Joy in the majesty of physicality, autonomy, community, and the mind-blowing landscapes of California and Oregon. And a certain satisfaction in knowing that the best-selling book will go on to reach a wider audience on screen in autumn 2014, telling the story of a woman who went on the road and journeyed triumphant.