Wednesday, 22 April 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.