Movie Mondays: WILD
I went to see the movie before I started reading the book. I know, I know, it’s sacrilege. But seeing the movie WILD made me want more, in a good way, and I didn’t think having seen the movie would impact my experience of reading the book. So far, it hasn’t. Maybe the events that happen in the book don’t have as much surprise or weight because I remember them from the movie, but what I like about both the movie and the memoir is that it is about so much more than just the events.
I have a fair amount of back-country hiking and camping experience. Most of it terrible. Like really really terrible. My dad grew up a Boy Scout and we lived near the Shenandoah Mountains portion of the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t actually know there was such a thing as “car camping” until my late teens, and even then my family wasn’t allowed to camp in those campgrounds except a handful of times out of necessity.
Despite ridiculous ascensions, washed out trails, puking, lots and lots of rain, family dysfunction, emergency clinic visits, and more lightning/rain/hail/snow/wind, I truly loved and still love being in the woods. The words that come to mind are “quiet” and “stillness” yet neither of these things exist, at all, in the woods. Everything is moving. Everything makes noise. There is something in the isolation, though, that feels quiet and still. And I need that in order to make sense of my world.
When I was fourteen, after a year fraught with arguments and juvenile delinquency, I ended up on an Outward Bound trip to the Colorado Rockies. I don’t remember whose recommendation it was and I didn’t know at the time that Outward Bound was more for teen fuck-ups while a similar organization called NOLS was more for kids who seriously wanted to experience the outdoors. It says something about gender differences at that age, I think, that the three girls in my group were all fairly put together while the four or five boys were complete knuckleheads who really were teen fuck-ups.
The first couple of days we acclimated on a platform tent in a compound with all the other groups. I’m sure there were some trust walks and other exercises but I don’t remember much except sorting through my suitcase with everyone deciding what and how to pack our packs.
The first day we hiked out of camp into the back-country, all I kept thinking about was how I could lightly fall and twist my ankle to get out of the whole thing. I didn’t know how I was going to make it a few miles with a pack that probably weighed only 30 pounds, 40 at most. One foot in front of the other, I stared at the ground, holding onto the straps of my pack to lighten the load, planning my escape route. As Reese Witherspoon says as Cheryl Strayed in the movie WILD: “What the fuck have I done?”
I love the moment in the motel room as Reese packs her pack for the first time and tries to lift it onto her back. On one of my later camping trips with my family to Yosemite, my mother, who was not raised a Boy Scout, packed things like whole apples and cans of spaghetti sauce because the dehydrated food packs were “disgusting.” Halfway through the trip, after a grueling hike up to a ridge where we were forced to camp in the dying light only to get lightninged and hailed on throughout the night as my boyfriend and I held hands and prayed we would survive, we returned to the main road and my backpack literally ripped off the frame, stripping the bolt. The backpack was rated for 75 pounds. 75 POUNDS!
So I know what it’s like to carry that burden, both physically and mentally.
During my time on Outward Bound, we did a “solo” trip, which basically entailed us being placed by our counselors out of sight and sound from each other for over 24 hours, armed with a loud whistle in case we needed help. They encouraged us to fast during the time, foregoing the ration pack they left with us. We each had a tarp, a sleeping bag, our water bottles, and a small plastic pack that had crackers and something like Kool-Aid. I chose to fast. At one point I’m pretty sure I was hallucinating – I heard lawnmowers in the woods and maybe a deer came nearby. But I spent a lot of that time thinking about what an asshole I had been that previous year. I didn’t want to be that person anymore. I didn’t want to fight with my family anymore. My delinquent ex-boyfriend? I didn’t need him in my life anymore. My parents wanted to ship me off to private school and I had been resisting. But out in the woods, that change wasn’t frightening anymore. I could take it on. I wouldn’t fight anymore. I had a clarity in the woods about all the bullshit that was simply bullshit and a strong sense of who I was.
The one thing no one planned for? Entering back into the real world. A number of kids had hotel rooms with their families, but my family was back in DC. I was flying out the day we were bussed back to Denver. I hadn’t bathed in over 17 days. I didn’t know that I smelled. I was so used to it. I was on Mountain Time. So I didn’t think it really mattered that much. I checked in at the airport and went to the bathroom to wash my hands. Then I decided to wash my face. I remember seeing people look at me like I was homeless and not having the energy to tell them the truth. It seemed so hard to speak in a world full of noise. On the plane, there was thankfully a seat between me and the other woman in my row, so I leaned against the window and watched the clouds. At one point, I got up to the use restroom and put my coke onto my seat to get by. When I returned, the coke had spilled onto my seat. The lady in my row looked at me sadly and advised me that there were some seats available a few rows back. But I told her it was fine; I would just sit in the middle. I’m sure she loved that, looking back on it.
I was so tan, and so dirty I remember watching the black-streaked water wash off my body once I got home. I remember the bed felt too high, too soft, and I couldn’t sleep because I was used to the ground. I remember feeling like I was moving in slow motion compared to everything else, and cars on the road scared me.
Of course, when I came back into the real world, all those convictions I’d discovered in the woods were harder to stick to. I wasn’t isolated anymore. I wasn’t thinking and living within a vacuum. I was still not even fifteen, highly emotional, sometimes out of my mind, angry, scared, and desperately searching for understanding. But that time out in the woods gave me the knowledge that I was strong. That I could make it past Day One. That I could make it all the way through the 6 mile run on Day 16 back to base camp. Self-reliance is so hard to come by in this day when we depend on technology and other people to help us get everything done, even the simplest things. While I don’t plan on dropping off the grid, there’s something necessary about testing and discovering that I can rely on myself, that I can survive, and not just survive but live. It’s turned out to be a source of strength I’ve needed, over and over, in the 20+ years since my time in the Rockies.
Watching WILD and reading the book has reminded me that I need to go to the woods again, soon.