Walk Unafraid: The Journey Through Grief in ‘Wild’

Reese Witherspoon in Wild (2014). Cheryl, a petite blonde woman in cargo shorts and a plaid shirt, carries an enormous hiking backpack on her shoulders. She is walking through a wooded area with green trees, gazing out in front of her.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

None of us are strangers to grief. At one time or another, we have all gone through some form of bereavement or personal loss. We know how grief feels. How it looks. But what if we felt the need to explore our grief, through an incredible physical feat? What if we worked our way through loss by walking 1,100 miles across the American landscape, completely alone?

Wild (2014), based on the autobiographical novel of the same name, follows the story of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) as she embarks on a solo hike across part of the Pacific Crest Trail, a daunting hike three months in duration from California to the Oregon/Washington border. Following the culmination of the death of her mother, divorce, an unwanted pregnancy, and a brush with heroin, the trip for Cheryl is not the usual outdoor excursion. Instead, it becomes a life-affirming journey in which she navigates her grief and finally is able to find herself again. As she describes the goal herself, “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.”

Cheryl’s emotional upheaval throughout her hike will look familiar to those who have suffered from grief themselves. During the first few days of the PCT, she is over-burdened and under-prepared. Struggling to continue, she becomes unsure of her own abilities. The ability to hike the PCT, and the ability to do it alone. In a scene that first appears as the film’s opening, Cheryl rests on top of a cliff, already deep into her hike. She takes off her walking boot and peels off the sad remains of a toenail, a painful reminder of the physical toll the PCT takes. As she falls against her backpack in pain, the boot tips over the edge and into the seemingly endless abyss below. Cheryl is momentarily stunned, before eventually erupting into a vengeful rage and choosing to hurl her remaining boot off the cliff. She is without shoes, without a mother, but is not lacking in anger.

When we suffer grief, we might feel doubt in our abilities to continue on. We may become angry with our circumstances. All these are familiar stages that Cheryl experiences and must also overcome. 

Wild is set across a beautiful backdrop of the American wilderness. Often, the settings seem to aptly reflect Cheryl’s emotional state as well as her physical progress with the hike. Her journey begins in the scorching dry landscape of the vast Mojave desert, reflective of her own emptiness and desolation in life. It is here that she quickly begins to understand the gravity of her task ahead. The dusty land is unforgiving, the sun beating down and reminding her that what lays ahead will be difficult – both in the confrontation of her grief and physical toll of the hike itself.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild (2014). A Long shot of Cheryl walking along a path on an open grassy plain, with a hilly range in the far distance. In front of her is a wooden sign that reads "Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail".
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Cheryl’s route eventually brings her through part of the Sierra Mountains. The vast whiteness stretches out in front of her, cold and unwelcoming. Cheryl cannot avoid the route and knows she must press on, just as she cannot avoid reflecting on memories of her mother’s illness in order to move past it. Later, she encounters a fox in the snow. They stare at each other for a few moments before the fox walks off, leaving Cheryl stumbling behind and yelling for it to come back. She is calling out for the fox, but we feel that she is really calling out for someone else. Seeking something and someone she no longer has. The only other souls she encounters in the Sierra is that of two skiers. They are distant figures indistinguishable in the snow, only faintly heard through yells. The coldness and isolation of the mountains serves as a backdrop for Cheryl’s loneliest moments, physically and emotionally. 

As she reaches the final leg of her journey in Oregon, the landscape transitions into a damp and overcast oasis. Walking through the woods in the rain she comes across the bizarre, almost mirage-like image of a llama standing on the path before her. She soon meets the grandmother and grandson pair it belongs to.

She shares a gentle and loving conversation with the young boy (who is quite possibly the most precious child to ever appear on film), who reveals he has “problems he’s not supposed to talk about with strangers”. Cheryl instantly connects with the sweetly naïve child, and they exchange problems. When he asks about her mother, she finally has to say it aloud. The truth she has been carrying like a heavy burden. Her mother was sick, and she died. The boy sings a tender rendition of “Red River Valley”, and we see flashes from moments throughout the hike. The warm sunrises and sunsets, and the beauty of the PCT. 

The grandmother and boy leave, and a few feet down the path Cheryl collapses onto her knees and sobs. The skies are open, rain is patting down, and she is released. The contrast between the stark and scorching desert landscape at the start of the PCT and the gentle showers of the end is fitting. As she sits in the rain, it is almost as if she is being baptised. Being cleansed of the Cheryl that she once was, but is no longer. 

Reese Witherspoon in Wild (2014). Cheryl sits in the grass by the side of a small pond, her hiking gear strewn around beside her. She is holding a plastic container of water, and looks over her left shoulder towards the sky.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Often when we feel grief or other extreme states our environments can change around us, moulded by how we feel and see the world. Sometimes, our surroundings seem to adapt and reflect exactly what we need and what our progression requires, just as it does with Cheryl. From the starting point of hot and dusty deserts where she is frustrated and unsure of herself, through the snowy mountains where she remembers her mother and appears more alone than ever, to concluding in the cleansing rain of the Oregon woods. 

The grandmother and grandson are not the only characters that affect or reflect Cheryl’s mental journey. Throughout the hike, she encounters many others that not only offer her valuable advice and motivation to help her continue the PCT but also help her in rediscovering a world outside her own sorrow. In the first few days when she temporarily veers off the path, she asks a man working in the desert to give her a ride to somewhere she can get a warm meal. After initially being suspicious (she is a solo female traveller now sitting in a strange man’s truck, after all), she finds him to be kind and generous. He and his wife give her hot food and a warm shower. The kindness of others is something she receives many times throughout her journey.

There is Greg, the first fellow hiker she meets, who buys her the Snapple and potato chips she is desperately craving. Stacey, another solo female travelling through the PCT with whom she bonds and reflects upon how the trail is helping them find themselves. She also meets three young male hikers, who share their booze and crown her with the trail name ‘Queen of the PCT’. The boy and grandmother she meets becomes the biggest cathartic trigger for Cheryl. She can finally break down in grief. This time, it’s not self-destructive or damaging to others, but a just wave of sadness. She can finally admit her utmost truth, as she weeps and declares to the sky, “I miss you”. 

Only once on the trail does Cheryl meet two men with possibly genuine malicious intent, but most of the other characters she encounters provide her with the resources and energy she needs to keep trekking on. Her relationships with these passing strangers allow her to learn to trust in others and gain perspective of a world beyond her own, where she was previously acting selfishly and making negative choices.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild (2014). Cheryl sits with her knees drawn up to her chest, wearing thick socks and sandals as she rests outside of her tent. Her water bottle, backpack, and other supplies sit on the ground beside her tent.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Perhaps the most tangible symbol of Cheryl’s journey can be found in her backpack. In the book, she appropriately names this ‘Monster’, a nickname bestowed upon it by other hikers in the film. The day before the hike starts, Cheryl is in a dingy motel room preparing and sorting things into her backpack. This bag is a gigantic thing, almost as big as Cheryl herself. She has to work herself up from all fours just to be able to stand. The backpack weighs her down throughout her journey, making simple things such as standing or walking an exhausting task. At one point, Cheryl observes her body in the mirror after a shower, and sees worn red marks on the skin of her shoulders and hips. The backpack has scarred her, but it’s not the only thing. The weight Cheryl carries is not just physical – her overwhelming but unchecked grief from her mother’s death pushes down on her like another equally heavy monster.

Later, at a shared campsite, a friendly stranger shares his expertise to help her shift some of the unnecessary items and take some of the weight off. By the end of the film she is able to wear the bag with ease, walking with it as if she’s carried it her whole life. By the time she reaches the end of the PCT, she has a lighter sense of self as well as a lighter pack. She has continuously pushed on, shedding her physical and emotional weight as she goes. 

The PCT is a monstrous task for Cheryl. It is not a trip for the faint of heart, especially for a solo female traveller. Yet it is the challenge she needs. The ever changing landscapes, flashbacks, and faces of passing strangers are reflections of Cheryl’s progression. She gets stronger and more unafraid of the PCT as she goes, a skill that she also uses to gain closure and come to terms with her loss of mother, grasp on life, and sense of self. The end of the PCT for Cheryl is the Bridge of the Gods. When she arrives at the bridge, she has finally reached closure. Her grief hasn’t gone away, but she can understand it, accept it, and forgive it. 

I could try and think of the perfect summary for Cheryl’s emotional and physical endeavour, but she says it best with her own words in the novel: “I looked north, in it’s direction – the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking.”

Granted, we can’t all go and hike a 1,100 mile excursion across the country to find closure for our grief. Yet we can look at Cheryl’s journey – a constant winding road that weaves between joy, loneliness, and anger, and recognise our own struggles in this. We can see the journey and the hope that lays ahead, just as Cheryl does. The road through grief isn’t a road at all, but a trail. All we can do is keep going.

by Jessica Cullen

Jessica is a freelance writer and full time agent. A Film Production and Cinematography graduate, she loves true crime, flea markets, and Fleetwood Mac. Find her on Twitter or read her newsletter where she dissects pages from her childhood diaries. 

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