By Christiane Steckenbiller

Walk­ing 1,100 miles in one con­sec­u­tive hike with a heavy back­pack – real­ly heavy, so heavy that you can hard­ly stand, let alone walk – might not seem like the most intrigu­ing activ­i­ty to most peo­ple. But for some­one like me liv­ing in Col­orado, a state con­sis­tent­ly viewed as one of the most active ones in the coun­try, this sce­nario hits very close to home. The Col­orado Trail, for instance, is a 486-mile hike (one way!) that runs from Den­ver to Duran­go. Peo­ple hike it. And they block off four to six weeks of their vaca­tion time to do it.

Cheryl Strayed had to take more time off than that to hike the much longer Pacif­ic Crest Trail. Known as the PCT, the trail runs from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia to British Colum­bia along the North Amer­i­can West Coast over the Sier­ra Neva­da and Cas­cade moun­tain ranges. Strayed wrote about her trek in her 2012 mem­oir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacif­ic Crest Trail, that topped The New York Times best­seller list and hit Amer­i­can movie the­aters this win­ter. Direct­ed by the Cana­di­an Jean-Marc Val­lée (Dal­las Buy­ers Club), with a screen­play by Eng­lish writer Nick Horn­by (High Fideli­tyAbout a Boy), the film fit­ting­ly pre­miered at the Tel­luride Film Fes­ti­val in Col­orado. Reese With­er­spoon por­trays Strayed in a role that has gar­nered her anoth­er Acad­e­my Award nomination.

Yet while some may expect stun­ning shots of gor­geous moun­tain views and the blonde actress’s ath­let­ic body (actu­al­ly, we do get to see With­er­spoon take off her clothes more than once), at the heart of the film is some­thing dark­er, shock­ing, deeply mov­ing, and yet also invig­o­rat­ing – and only part of this can be cred­it­ed to With­er­spoon rip­ping off a gnarled, bloody toe­nail in the open­ing scene. Rather, the dra­ma is about Strayed’s shame spi­ral into sex and hero­in after her moth­er (played by the excel­lent Lau­ra Dern) dies of can­cer. The view­er under­stands these events through a series of flash­backs as Strayed hikes the trail.

Wild also reveals snap­shots of Strayed’s dif­fi­cult child­hood, her mother’s rela­tion­ship with an abu­sive hus­band, and Strayed’s own failed mar­riage. The deci­sion to hike the PCT four years after her mother’s death when Strayed is 26 is thus framed as a cathar­tic jour­ney to self-dis­cov­ery and men­tal heal­ing that is sur­pris­ing­ly sus­pense­ful and enter­tain­ing, even though for much of the film tra­di­tion­al con­ven­tions of cin­e­mat­ic nar­ra­tive are com­plete­ly sus­pend­ed. We get to see With­er­spoon hike, sweat, freeze, swear, despair, risk her life, and ulti­mate­ly sur­vive in a grip­ping and wit­ty per­for­mance that does more than jus­tice to Strayed’s arrest­ing memoir.

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Chris­tiane Steck­en­biller is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Ger­man at Col­orado Col­lege in Col­orado Springs. Her research focus­es on con­tem­po­rary Anglo­phone and Ger­man lit­er­a­ture and film, cul­tur­al geog­ra­phy, and fem­i­nist and media stud­ies. She is also inter­est­ed in race rela­tions and Amer­i­can pop culture.