Saturday, April 30, 2016

Wild One

For the second year, I'm temporarily switching out streaming services. The timing worked out pretty perfectly: I blew through Season 2 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, caught Patton Oswalt's new special on Friday, then canceled Netflix and signed up for HBO Now in time for Sunday's Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones.

I'm primarily motivated by the original series on each service, but the biggest side-perk of switching to HBO is their vastly superior library of movies. At any given time Netflix will have a couple of decent films, but the days when you could reliably find a movie you were interested in have long since passed. HBO, on the other hand, has a ton of movies, and many more recent blockbusters. I've already lined up about a dozen that I want to watch, and more will be arriving in the upcoming months.

I think the system actually encourages switching between services: I'll likely continue paying for HBO Now for the next 3 months, covering the duration of Game of Thrones. This comes at a 50% premium over Netflix, but in absolute dollars it isn't bad at all - $15 a month versus $9. And, once I switch back to Netflix, it will have accumulated 3 months' worth of new movies, increasing the odds that there will be something on there that I'll actually want to watch.

Streaming movies has a few different advantages. It can be a great chance to catch up on gaps in my pop culture resume - it's a little surprising that I haven't seen "Knocked Up" before, and that was one of the first things I watched. It's also perfect for watching movies that came out in the last year or two that had interested me at the time but I'd never managed to see. High on that list: "Wild," which came out recently and stars Reese Witherspoon as a woman who hikes the Pacific Coast Trail.

Through-hiking the PCT has been a long-standing dream of one, albeit one that I perpetually delay. I love backpacking; it's been far too long since my last trip, but my journeys through Henry Coe Park, Yosemite, and The Lost Coast have been some of the happiest times of my life.

From very early on, I was impressed at just how well the movie gets the experience of hiking. Not just the physical aspect, but the mental one as well. I smiled when, shortly after Cheryl gets on the trail, she starts thinking to herself "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck." That's fairly common for me as well in my own hikes: not that I'm upset or in pain, but it's a rhythmic phrase that helps me maintain a certain pace.

The way that Cheryl's mind wanders and focuses on her journey rang very true for me. I think that might be my favorite aspect of hiking and why I try to do it so often. As your body is occupied on the trail, your mind begins to wander, jumping back and forth in time. I'll often replay entire scenes from my past, thinking about what they meant and whether I should have done anything differently. And, much like Cheryl, I sometimes manage to find closure and peace about things that have been bothering me.


Early on, I varied between thinking "Wow, the filmmakers really know a lot about backpacking!" and "Eh, this isn't very realistic." I loved the scene where she empties her food into baggies, reseals them, rolls them, and packs them. That probably doesn't mean a whole lot to non-hikers, but it's a crucial aspect to packing for long trips, letting you efficiently fit a lot more calories into a smaller space.

On the other hand, the pack itself was ludicrous - way too large, way too heavy (albeit with great comic relief when she tries to strap in), and with poor weight distribution, most notably with her canteen and stuff hanging off the back. However, much later in the movie, I finally realized that this was all deliberate: the whole point was that she wasn't packing very well, and one significant step of her evolution on the trail is a scene where she casts off all the things that had been bugging me and gets to a more reasonable weight.

For a while the combination of those things bothered me: why was Cheryl so smart about packing food, and so dumb about bringing paperback books? It finally made sense much later in the movie when she stumbles across a tribute to Jerry Garcia, who has just died. All along I'd been assuming that this was a fairly contemporary movie, perhaps set around 2010; but it's actually set all the way back in '95. The ultralight movement hadn't really come to dominate backpacking yet, and there wasn't yet the huge wealth of online resources and travelogues that we have today. (Heck, Cheryl probably helped get that ball rolling!) If Cheryl was mostly motivated by the paperback books with pretty pictures of the trail, then yeah, of course her knowledge would be spotty. And any books that she read would probably still be influenced from the old-school, 70s-era backpacking ethos, which really was much more about bringing along everything you wanted, as opposed to the minimum necessary to support your adventure.

Once that piece of it clicked, I was able to enjoy absolutely everything about the the movie's portrayal of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of hiking the trail. For example, I absolutely loved one scene where she encounters a massive boulder that has fallen onto the trail, along a steep cliff's face, and needs to figure out how to get around it. In a Hollywood movie, we would expect there to be a rockslide, a desperate leap to safety, clinging for dear life. What actually happens is much more realistic and much more powerful: she swears, stops, evaluates the situation, comes up with a plan, cautiously executes it, and then happily continues on her way. Those moments aren't all that common on the trail, but they're the things that personally give me the greatest satisfaction: those moments of puzzle-solving, where we figure out how to overcome obstacles and achieve our goals.

Patience and calm are the greatest virtues a hiker can have. When something starts to go wrong, keeping your cool will allow you to quickly recover. However, if you react with anger, fear, or frustration, then you'll almost inevitably make things far worse. Whether it's a problem with your equipment, or your path, it's almost best to stop what you're doing, take a deep breath, and think things through before taking any actions.

We see Cheryl in a variety of tense situations. Sometimes she makes mistakes - wasting the last of her water, angrily chucking a fuel canister. But more often we see her overcoming adversity: dealing with unwanted attention, collecting an alpaca, properly treating impure water rather than immediately satisfying her thirst.

The scene that most struck me, though, was the very first scene in the movie. It starts in media res: we see Cheryl at a beautiful spot on top of a mountain, but also in pain, wrenching off her boots and examining the bloody mess beneath. Something goes wrong (a boot falls down the slope), and she makes it worse (she chucks the other one after it), then bellows her rage at the world. When I initially saw that scene, I winced and thought, "Man, she's being really emotional and irrational."

Afterwards, we go back to the start of the hike, and follow Cheryl along the way. By the time we finally catch back up to that starting scene and see it again, my understanding of it had totally changed. First of all, I now understood Cheryl's mental state. She wasn't upset because her hike was hard: she was upset because her mother had died. Secondly, throwing the footwear wasn't nearly as irrational as it had seemed. Those boots were practically killing her, and, furthermore, she had already lined up a replacement pair for her next stop. I ended up admiring her cleverness with her improvised solution of sandals and duct-tape: they don't offer as much support, but would be much kinder to her toes than the boots.

Heh... in all of my writing above, I've almost completely ignored the real point of the movie, which of course isn't about the minutiae of backpacking on the PCT but about Cheryl's personal story. Artistry and realism combine perfectly to tell this story: the flashbacks aren't just an authorial device to reveal information, but are what Cheryl is actually thinking about at those points in her hike. We gradually come to know the full picture more and more as we watch the movie, but Cheryl is also coming to terms with her history, assimilating her memories and finding meaning in them.


Much like the scene with the boots, I found my understanding reshaped and reformed as the movie provides more context. Early on, most flashbacks are very short and emotional, just a few seconds long: it's like Cheryl's mind is too skittish to dwell on painful memories, so she quickly forces herself to move on. In one, we see her riding in the passenger seat of a car driven by her ex-husband, who is yelling at her. We think that it's a scene of an abusive relationship, perhaps leading up to the divorce. Perhaps he is the reason she has fled to the wilderness. By the end of the hike, though, we now know what led up to that scene: Cheryl running away, having sex with a parade of anonymous men, becoming pregnant, having an abortion, becoming addicted to heroin. Now, watching that scene the second time, we can't help but feel sympathy for this man, who came all the way from Minneapolis to Portland to get his ex-wife out of a drug-infested squat and into therapy. His anger now seems protective, rather than dangerous.

The part that touched me the most is, of course, Cheryl's mother. There's a lot going on there, but the part that most struck me is a recalled conversation when Cheryl was a teenager. She gets annoyed at her mom, who persists in being happy and goofy, finally snapping with something like "We're both poor, we work as waitresses, we'll never get out of debt, and you were married to an abusive alcoholic asshole. Why are you so happy?" The mother becomes just a little bit more serious, and explains her philosophy (if we can't change our circumstances, we can still control our attitude), before ending with something like, "Yes, I married an abusive, alcoholic man. If I had it to do all over again, would I do anything differently? Absolutely not. Because of that awful man, I now have you."

That's really sweet and powerful on its own, but it also presages Cheryl's epiphany at the end of her journey. Yes, horrible things have happened in her life, and yes, she has made some horrible choices. But, ultimately, those things have all led her to this moment. She wouldn't be on the trail now if she hadn't become addicted to heroin. She wouldn't have met her husband if her own mother's death hadn't driven her to do something new.

It's a radical new way of looking at life and history. Replaying your memories can seem like an act of penance, punishing yourself for past mistakes. Or, it can be a way to understand who you are. Love all the parts of yourself, even the bad parts, because they're all necessary. When things go wrong, trust that they're a step on the way to something good happening. That can be a religious belief, or a secular belief, but either way it's a very powerful mindset to have.


Of course, Wild is actually leaving HBO Now today, so this probably won't be relevant to anyone who hasn't already seen it. If you get the chance, though, I highly recommend it. It's a terrific story on its own, and also a great glimpse into the physical and mental states that we backpackers love so dearly.

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