Walking It Off was the title Doug Peacock gave to his 2005 book about returning home from the trauma of the Vietnam War. The only solace the broken Army medic could find was hiking the Montana wilderness in the company of grizzly bears. Wild places proved strangely healing — echoing a wounded wilderness within.
Cheryl Strayed sought a similar remedy in her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone in 1995. Her mother had just died of cancer. Her marriage had collapsed. She’d been seeking escape (and self-punishment?) in heroin and random sex. Nothing worked for her. A thousand-mile trek on the desert and mountain trails of California and Oregon suddenly seemed like a good idea.
Her book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012), has now been made into a film by director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club). Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed in the movie. Laura Dern is her mother. The film version of a book is seldom as good as the original, but in this case both are effective in reminding us that “mistakes are the portals of discovery,” as James Joyce once said. Wilderness wandering — with its blisters, missed trails, and soggy sleeping bags — teaches this truth with supreme artistry. With its endless opportunities for fucking up (as Cheryl would say), it mirrors a lifetime of failure for one’s regretful review. It forces us to find resources we never knew we had.
As she impulsively hits the trail, Strayed commits all the sins that backpackers try to avoid: Packing far more than she needs, wearing boots that are too small and not broken in, sleeping in bear country with food in her tent, forgetting that a gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds (when you need considerably more than a gallon a day on desert trails). All these are necessary mistakes, as are all the mistakes in our lives. We won’t get to where we finally need to go without making mistakes.
That’s why wilderness backpacking can serve, in so many ways, as a spiritual practice. It teaches the importance of paying attention, traveling light, savoring beauty, and not wasting your time blaming yourself over what can’t be fixed. “We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right,” says Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr. The mistakes that Cheryl Strayed makes on the trail — and her ability to survive them, with the help of others — suggest the possibility of her finding healing for the larger mistakes she’s made in her life.
The wilderness is her teacher. Its combination of astonishing beauty and uncaring indifference prove as healing as they are unnerving. She’s been wholly absorbed in the intensity of her own pain and anger. But the desert doesn’t give a shit. Its habit of ignoring all that bothers her is curiously freeing, inviting her outside of herself. She’s able to imagine new possibilities by the time she reaches the end of the trail at the Bridge of the Gods. As Andrew Harvey says, “We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.” All Cheryl Strayed has to do is walk for miles, “with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets.”
“You can quit any time,” she keeps telling herself. But she’s already been quitting too many things in her life. Something in the wild feeds her soul, enabling her to go on. She had started with a desire to “walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.” Walking back into her family roots was important. But even more important, and a gift she finally receives in the end, is walking her way back beyond all the mistakes she has made. “What if I were to forgive myself?” she asks at one point on the trail. And, on even deeper reflection, “What if all those things I did were what got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?” In the end she’s able to review the agonizing memories of her life and regret nothing, letting it all pour out into widening canyons beyond the trail.
That’s the ability of wilderness to absorb and heal pain. It’s been attested to by wilderness saints throughout the centuries. From the Desert Fathers and Mothers to Hildegard of Bingen to John Muir, they discovered a wild glory, a disarming indifference, and an uncommon grace that brought them to life in a new way. “Empty yourself of everything,” wrote Lao-tzu in the Tao Te Ching. “Let the mind rest at peace. The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.” Wilderness, as Cheryl Strayed learned, is one of the best places for doing this.