It follows the book.
That’s probably because the author of the book,
Cheryl Strayed, not only co-wrote the screenplay for the movie, she actually
makes a cameo appearance (along with a very awkward promotional spot to
introduce it). It’s
her story of her trek along the Pacific Coast Trail, 20 years ago now, when
she walked 1,100 miles one summer because…because she had nothing better to
Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon)
is not only the central character in this movie, she’s practically the only
character, or at the very least, the only major one.
Everyone else is either a brief encounter, a
flashback, or an afterthought.
It’s a good thing that Witherspoon is such a
veteran successful actress, but still, carrying the whole weight of this film
was as big a load as, well, that monstrously oversized backpack that Strayed
brought along for her solo trek.
Sure, if you’re going to be
walking more than three months by yourself, you need to have lots of gear with
tent, surely, sleeping bag, miniature cook stove, water, perishable foods, a
change of clothes, the obvious stuff.
She didn’t realize until she was already on the
trek how important it was to have boots that fit properly.
And how irrelevant certain items are: like
Yeah, she brought a whole package,
because she wanted to be prepared for whatever casual encounter she might
happen to take a sudden interest in, and that kind of impulsive reckless
behavior is what caused her to embark on this severe exercise in keeping her
own company in the first place.
And she’s searingly honest about the casual
drugs, too, and the binge drinking, and she seems to take an almost perverse
pride in her colorful vocabulary, even when talking to herself.
Strayed even admits that she cheated on her
husband, not just once, but several times, and can’t really even explain to
herself why she did. Or
explain to any of the rest of us how she can claim that she still loves him.
And he, inexplicably, is the one who sends her
the “C.A.R.E.” packages that are waiting for her at each Rangers station,
new clothes and fresh supplies and a little cash, along with a sweet note to
encourage her. It’s
difficult to fathom such devotion in someone who’s just been jilted.
But then, Cheryl Strayed’s life is nothing if
not complicated; who else would get a commemorative matching tattoo with your
ex-spouse on the day of your divorce?
That’s why she wanted to boil it down to the
stark simplicity of a long, meandering journey, which became an odyssey of
resourcefulness and determination, which became a pilgrimage, of sorts, where
at the end she arrives at the shrine of self-acceptance.
No, she doesn’t find religion
out there in the Wild, except to worship at the altar of self-absorbed
she does manage to work through her personal grief over the untimely death of
her Mom, at 45, and the subsequent necessity to put down her sick horse.
What Cheryl Strayed is actually doing out there
is taking a personal sabbatical, and the physical ordeal acts as a kind of
emotional drying-out, a soul-cleansing, preparing her psychologically for the
next chapter in her life.
In spiritual terms, it’s like a peripatetic,
silent, creature-comfort-denying contemplative wilderness retreat, where, at
the end, she arrives at a certain hard-earned peace with herself.
Some of the rest of us might be able to come to
terms with ourselves with slightly less effort.
Oh, and as a by-product, this
writer predicts that the Pacific Coast Trail is itself suddenly going to
become a very popular outdoor destination.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Parish
Associate, Woodhaven Presbyterian Church,