Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Wild" - Or how hiking the PCT is not like

I have now watched the movie "Wild" twice. There is no accounting for taste - and therefore I don't want to say it is a good or a bad movie. There have been long and heated discussions in the outdoor community about Cheryl's ridiculously heavy backpack, about her perceived lack of "Leave no trace" ethics and about too much "drama" or "sex and drugs and rock'n'roll" in an outdoor movie. Not much more to be said about these topics.

But there is one topic in the movie that has been wildly exploited in the media reviews - without much response from the outddoor community: the gender issue.

Cheryl's role as a sexually harrassed female is a recurring theme in the book and movie and most female critics dwell on this subject in their reviews. Best example is this review in the Washington Post:

"Every time Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) meets up with a man — or a group of men — you can see her calculating if he will hurt her and, if so, how much and with what. Sometimes she’s right, sometimes she’s wrong."

This review captures Cheryl's attitude very well: Whenever she meets a man on the trail (and there are hardly any women) she gets this deer-in-the-headlights look and nearly gets a panic attack because, of course, all men on the trail are just out there to hit on her - from fellow hikers, to trail angels and park rangers. Not to forget a group of hunters who are portayed as nearly raping her.

And personally I am very much surprised that no one in the outdoor community has stood up and said that this is just not the reality on the trail. I have hiked not only the entire PCT (which is much more than Cheryl did) but the entire Triple Crown as a female. And honestly, Cheryl's experiences do not resemble in the least what I have seen out there hiking. I have never felt sexually harrassed or threatened on the trail and I think the movie "Wild" casts a bad - and unfair - light on the trail in this respect.

Let's talk about the different groups of "aggressors" and start with fellow male hikers:

Cheryl meets her first fellow hiker when he is skinny dipping in a river and of course she is immediately scared by a naked male. First of all let me tell you that the whole scene is highly improbable because most Americans are so puritan that they would never swim naked next to the trail. When hiking the Triple Crown it was usually me, the European female, who would get naked whereas my male American fellow hikers would only get fully dressed into the water.....

I have also very rarely seen that a male hiker is hitting on a female one - for various reasons. The first one is plain simple and pragmatic: After hiking 20+ miles every single day for months on end you have different things on your mind than chasing tail - you are just too plain tired and exhausted. Secondly there is a very strong social control on the trail. Thruhikers have not much to do while hiking so gossipping is a favourite passtime. Word of any pick up attempt gone wrong will spread along the trail like a wild fire - and ruin this hiker's reputation.

The third reason is the main and most important one: the trail is a great equalizer. It does not matter any more if you are male or female, old or young, rich or poor. Hikers treat each other like equals - and usually as asexual beings. First of all you are a fellow thruhiker - being male or female is of secondary importance. Of course there is trail romance (and I have had my fair share of it as well), but the first encounter with a male on the trail ususally feels like between two fellow thruhikers and not between a a man and a woman - although this situation might develop later....

Pretty much the same goes for other people a thruhiker meets on the trail like rangers or trail angels. A trail angel who hits on a female thruhiker would not be a trail angel for much longer because of the strong social control in the well connected thruhiking community.

I do understand Cheryl's feelings towards the hunters though. Especially for me as a European hiker who is not used to see many armed people in public the sight of hunters armed to the teeth was frightening in the beginning. Especially my first encounters with camouflaged bow hunters - again something I had not seen before in Europe where bow hunting is forbidden - scared the shit out of me. But again I have always been treated respectfully by them and eventually I have realised that they pursue their hobby in the outdoors just as I pursue mine - with no hidden agenda.

And now to Cheryl's behaviour - which I found a bit unusual. Fellow thruhikers gave her the trail name "Queen of the PCT". Unfortunately Cheryl did not seem to get the irony of that trail name that reflects a bit of her behaviour on the trail. She is constantly playing off her feminity in order to get what she wants. She plays the "dumb helpless blond" by fluttering her eyelashes. In one scene she is even wearing sexy satin lingerie - and every real thruhiker wonders where she has gotten it from. Is she even carrying a wonderbra in her monster backpack? Or has she asked a friend to send it to her on the trail as an indispensable weapon in her struggle with men?

Again this kind of female behaviour is not what you see often on the trail. Female thruhikers are as smelly and dirty as male ones and usually act the same when asking for help. Your feminity might be an advantage when hitching into town but other than that women on the trail are not regarding their gender as a trump card in order to get help from other people. And I have never ever seen a female thruhiker carrying satin lingerie in her backpack.....

Bottom line: You cannot debate Cheryl's fears and anxieties. If she is afraid of every man she meets on the trail that is her business and I am not to judge her behaviour. But it should be made clear that her paranoid behaviour is unfounded. Sexual harassment is not much of an issue on the PCT nor on any other long distance hiking trail I have hiked. Yes, it might occur but it is much less likely to happen on a trail than in normal life. In this respect a female is much safer  hiking a trail than walking around a city. I wish so much that more women would get out of this perceived "general victimhood". Think more about what great things you can do and achieve and less about what bad things can potentially happen to you. Be careful, but not fearful.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

hear hear!

Robert said...

Thanks for the post! I can second your thoughts about hikers being equal in woods, no matter who you are and what gender you are. It simply doesn't matter.

And too add another thought on the gender issue: Contrary to popular belief, it didn't matter whom of us (1 female, 2 male) was standing on the side of the road to stop a car. So it is simply not true that it is easier for females to catch a ride. At least it wasn't for us. Plus, most of the people who stopped where single women!

And let me add one last though: It is not fun for a male hiker to be constantly looked at as a potential rapist or murderer by female hikers. Very annoying!

Jane said...

Totally agree. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an attention whore/prick tease type. Gets off on arousing guys then indulging in rape fantasies if they make advances, perhaps masturbates to fantasies that every man wants to have sex with her (or maybe not, some of these type women are unable to either masturbate or have real sex, and built-up sexual tension is why they have such lurid fantasies), etc. Very common type nowadays due to selfies and Facebook and the modern social environment which encourages narcissism. Her whole movie might be considered a giant selfie / exercise in narcissism (I didn't watch, don't have any interest in watching, just going by your description, surprised you watched it TWICE).

I'm a man and have had female hikers come onto me while hiking the PCT and other trails and it always me who rebuffs their advances, never the other way around. Of course, I'm pretty unsociable even with men. I really can't imagine hitting on a fellow hiker while on the trail, it seems like a huge social faux pas plus I'm just not aroused by hikers, even good-looking ones. Women (non-hikers) in town stops, that's another story.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone here actually knows this film is based on a book - biography -and not really about a "hiker" but a troubled silly woman who goes hiking. Read the book, makes more sense.

Anonymous said...

Read the book.

Amy L said...

Christine - thanks for the thoughtful comments about the movie and about your own experiences. I concur with you.

Top rated Ipe Decking for sale said...

Even though there were a few inconsistencies between the movie and the book overall -- I really loved it. The central them was the catharsis of Cheryl Strayed and the movie dealt with that beautifully. Stunning scenery. Amazing movie.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Christine for your comment & review of the film "Wild". Your experience as a woman with so many thousands of trail miles under your belt bears a lot of weight. I read the book and saw the film. My judgment was alternating between funny/crazy/silly and dumb/idiot/disgusting and dangerous to the real "wild" experience of hiking the PCT in the future. We discussed book and film in the hiker community for a some time. Even the PCTA jumped on the bandwagon, expecting some raise in funding and popular interest. But I wonder if this film does not create a lot of harm to the PCT experience of (single) gals or guys in the future. Thank you for your blog! God speed and happy trails, Go_West (home base: Germany)

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Anonymous said...

Hi Christine, I have read your book and Cheryl's book as well, I can't speak to the movie. But I think there is some more perspective in the book and also that it is her story meaning that she takes her fears (from a previous life in a much more violent environment) with her on the trail and this is I think why her sense of it is so distorted. Also she walked the trail about 10 years before you did, when I believe it was even more unusual for women.
That being said I loved both books and I admire very much what you do. Thank you and walk well!

Anonymous said...

Well, I too have read both books but have not seen the movie. Cherylls Story is her own to tell and of course from her own perspective. You ignore the fact that she was young and pretty at the time of her hike. The older a women gets the less she gets persued and yes, I am talking from experience. Also comparing a movie to reality is quite naive. A movie wants to entertain and not reflect the real thing.

I enjoyed both books very much and I congratulate everybody who persues his or her dreams.

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Anonymous said...

One thing you should consider in your criticism - besides from transferring a movie adaptation 1-1 into reality: Cheryl Strayed hiked the PCT in 1997, where only around 200 other thru-hikers started the trail. I doubt that the social control you are talking about, could be as rigidly enforced as it is today, with 2500 NoBos starting last year - that does not mean, that I can´t relate to your criticism, butit´s something to keep in mind.

Melanie said...

Dear Christine,

while reading your thoughts about Cheryl's story I realized that you might have watched the movie but did not read the book. I love this book and in my eyes it is not about the dangers that a woman has to face on the trail. Actually it is pretty feministic. I was kind of disappointed
about the movie, too. But the book has such a depth that is hard to transfer on the screen.

Cheers from Germany

Anonymous said...

Just a side note: Bow hunting is forbidden in Germany but it is not forbidden all over Europe (http://dbjv.org/bogenjagd-europa/) ;o)

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Anonymous said...

Two years ago I went for a long distance hike alone. Partly, more or less from day to day, I was walking together with others, often men. At the shelters there also always were men. I never felt unsafe, threatened or harrassed, even when I was alone with a complete stranger. Neither I felt intruded for example when taking the morning bath in a stream or a lake, nor when going to toilet (which mostly had to be done the primitive way by squatting behind a bush or a stone). Without a door to lock it certainly was unavoidable occaionally to be observed (or not least to spot others) when taking care of things that ideally should have been kept private. But I never observed anyone spying at me or lurking around trying by purpose to get a glimps of my white bum in any vulnerable situation. When living outdoor it is a part of the game I think. Neither did I encounter men exposing themselves in a rude way. Certainly possible to spot signs of the common morning phenomenon under the shorts of many males. And certainly I know that at least some of the men I met tackled their physiological need with assistance by "Miss Lefthand" as one of them once shortly commented. Later I have discussed this issue with my boyfriend (who also has been hiking quite a lot). He has told me that when he has such needs he make it up when squatting, liking going to toilet. No hikers will feel offended by observing a man doing that, but walking in on a man standing there doing it would have been another matter. For sure I cannot argue against the possibility to meet rude and even violent and criminal men along the trail, but I guess there are quite few of them out there.