The eastern Appalachian Trail—it’s 2,174 miles long. The mighty West Coast Pacific Crest trail is 464 miles longer.
Why do outdoorsy types brave pain, hunger, thirst, bugs, bears, rattlesnakes, rapists, and thieves—to hike these things? Especially alone? Especially single women alone?
Because these grandiose hikes are modern, secular cousins of those sacred, peripatetic rites of passage known as the Pilgrimage and the Aboriginal Walkabout.
All that walking in nature, sacred or secular, accomplishes roughly the same thing: purging and healing by way of physical hardship, loneliness, silence, and beauty. The very fine “Wild” depicts one woman’s inner transformation out on the PCT.
Following the 1991 cancer death of her mother (Laura Dern), Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) wrecks her marriage because of hard drugs and excessive cheating. She hits the PCT in ’95, with no previous hiking experience. And the Pacific Crest Trail is for black-belt hikers.
There are things one needs to learn, and preferably not through trial and error. Like, how small-ish hiking boots will grind the toenails right off your feet when you’re crunching across the Mojave Desert. And how duct-tape-wrapped Tevas make a poor substitute.
But Cheryl doesn’t know anything. Packing gear at the trailhead in her motel room, all she knows is that the water-bladder for her pack weighs a million pounds after filling it from the bathtub, and it takes a 10-minute wrestling match just to stand upright with the gigantic monster on her back.
Finally she’s out there. It’s scorching. It’s deadly. The thought that she can quit any time is all-pervading, and the trial-and-error learning starts: She bought the wrong gas canister for the stove. Now she gets to eat cold mush for weeks on end. Fun! No fun. Sometimes funny.
Bolting from her sleeping bag when something crawls up it, she blows her huge red trail-whistle (looking like it was ordered from ACME Whistle Company by Wiley E. Coyote). The tiny wooly-bear caterpillar that eventually shakes out is amusing.
Everything hurts all the time, and as a fellow hiker later says, “All the prep and training in the world—nothing prepares you for the pain and the heat.” But Cheryl’s committed. As she says, “I’m going to walk myself into the woman my mother thought I was.”
There are many flashbacks of Cheryl’s downward spiral into depression; it’s a fairly classic spiral for someone with an abusive alcoholic father, codependent mother, and a powerfully addictive personality.
However, life is paradoxical and the upside of the addictive personality is that people who have it can work harder and take more pain than the average person. So, Cheryl had the grit to be able to endure the level of pain needed to purge herself of the ghosts of her past.
Reese Witherspoon’s already escaped her ditzy “Legally Blonde” period with an Oscar as June Carter in “Walk the Line,” but “Wild” moves her solidly into serious leading-lady territory.
Despite there being way too much playing of the Simon & Garfunkel version of “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail,” the desert and Pacific Northwest scenery is stunning.
The only thing that feels amiss is the somewhat anticlimactic ending—the trail just sort of runs out. Cheryl says, “Thank you for everything the trail taught,” but something more uplifting feels called for, perhaps something like James Franco’s harrowing skin-of-his-teeth escape from his forced Vision Quest in “127 Hours.”
However, what they tell you on a Vision Quest, is that the most powerful visions are where you don’t feel like you had one. And so the message is that you don’t need to go out with a bang. If you focus on the trail, you’ll get where you’re going, and if you get where you’re going, the profound change is a given.
Before seeing “Wild,” rent “The Way” (Martin Sheen on a pilgrimage). See if these two ambulatory quests—the wild hike and the pilgrim’s way—aren’t pretty much exactly the same thing. You might want to go on one yourself someday.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Release date: Dec. 3
3.5 stars out of 5