Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Review of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail... and a few other thoughts



*First written in Dec 2014 this has been updated with inks to other articles and the like which show the problems outline within are still prevalent to present day* 

The other day I was reading an article in a running magazine. The author of the article was touting a literal cross-country running route in Spain. In the article, the author makes a grand gesture of how they suddenly quit their job, went home that night and bought a plane ticket so they could leave the next day for Spain. Upon arriving in Spain, they set off, with nary a plan, to run the length of the country.

Having flown approximately half of a million miles in the past half of a decade, I know a thing or two about air travel. I know price points and availabilities and the like. Upon hearing this supposed spur-of-the moment trip, I was already heading into this article a teensy bit more than skeptical about what I was going to read next. 

The author then goes on to speak about how they had little more than a passport, a spare pair of running clothes, and a backpack on their person. The skeleton of an idea was to run this 500 mile route in a few weeks and then head back home. Or something. It really doesn’t matter what the actual stated purpose was supposed to be. Why? Because by this point, the story feels like one of a thousand I have read where the author supposedly spontaneously does [fill in the blank] and we as the reader are expected to buy the story whole hog. 

I despise this type of writing.

With the proliferation of blogs and social media and the like, everyone can try to tell a story. This is wonderful in so many ways. Hidden talent is no longer hidden because it can’t find an agent or an outlet. However, the sheer amount of writing out there is chaff. Just because one can hit keystrokes doesn’t mean they are a good writer. (I constantly feel like a fraud when I write, wondering why anyone could possibly want to read my musings. I expect at any moment to never sell another book and have zero people click any link to any post I write.) As such, given the breadth of writings, this can lead to much exaggeration in order to make one person’s story more grandiose than the others. 

One of the things I have prided myself on when it comes to writing race recaps or tales of my adventures is to undersell what I have done. I go out of my way to keep any exuberances to a minimum. However, if anything unnatural occurs, I do my best to back it up with tangible evidence. If I say that I got cut off at the finish line by a rude competitor, it is rather vindicating when the pictures arrive and shows that is exactly what happened.

With the article I was reading, it was clear the author’s main point was to wax poetic about this particular trail. But barely buried in the subtext was how wonderfully care-free this author was supposed to be. Sticking it to the man, throwing caution to the wind and taking on Spain, come what may. Look at me! I am bucking convention! My bank account is obviously limitless and my talent and skills so high I needn’t prepare physically or gather proper gear, route-planning or provisions! Be inspired by my awesomeness! 

Of course, the author didn’t come close to finishing the entire run. Some injury flared up and they called it quits after about eight days of running and halfway across the trial. But that doesn’t matter in today’s hyped world. Talk about what you are going to do and you will get press. Hype up your adventure with a slick website or corporate funding and many will forget that you never actually accomplished what you were getting all the attention for in the first place (then ask people to fund your movie about your un-accomplished goal.) Better yet, be vague about what you are trying to do so no one can ever say you failed. Couple your efforts with fund-raising and you become bulletproof. Only the mean-spirited would ever point out you actually accomplished next to nothing and we all just paid for your vacation to Hawaii to run a marathon. By the way, what were you raising awareness for again?

The biggest problem I have with this type of storytelling is, even if it does inspire, it often will do so in a foolhardy way. The thought process being, if the average joe can just pick up and conquer the world then others feel they can, too. In the abstract, this is a wonderful idea. In reality, it can lead to disaster or massive failure. More often than not, however, tales of adventure had simply paved the way for a defeatist attitude. Many stop before they even start. Having seen this first-hand, let me explain.  

When I speak about running 52 Marathons in 52 weekends, eventually not only just completing the marathons but running them faster than I had ever run a marathon before, I see many who are inspired to take on challenges. Unfortunately, I also see some who grasp the magnitude of the endeavor and it frightens them. They immediately shirk any notion of chasing their dreams. “I could never run 52 Marathons!” They are missing the point of seeing someone do something challenging. 

I therefore specifically point out my undertaking was to challenge myself. It was not to compare myself against others or to try and break a world record. It was to push myself past my previous limitations. I tell them not to think about running marathons but rather to think about something, anything, they currently think they can’t do. Start a business. Run a race. Become a parent. Hopefully what I have done will put them in the right frame of mind to tilt against their own windmill. 

The point is to inspire, lift up and motivate. I make a sincere effort to show how much planning, hard-work and preparation went into not only the running of the marathons but the living of my life in between the races. That is why I say I despise the type of writing or story-telling which glosses over those important details. The task which gets the headlines is usually the easiest part of the entire excursion. Lost is all the behind-the-scenes stuff many never think about. It is also one major reason the article I mention above bothers me. It is also one of many reasons I am disgusted by the movie/book/person behind Wild

Talk about burying the lede.

If you don’t know, Wild is the movie based off the book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed which Oprah recently has lauded. The protagonist author (who has since blocked me on twitter) talks about how after losing her mother and getting divorced she decides to walk 1000-plus miles along Pacific Crest Trail. That’s the headline-grabbing synopsis. (Note the actual full PCT is ~2500 miles.) What is glossed over is that Strayed appears by every account to be a manipulative user, a sneaky opportunist, and while possibly a good storyteller, one who may be completely full of shit.

Lest you think I am attacking her unwarranted, let’s tackle the “got a divorce” portion of her life. This wasn’t just irreconcilable differences between two people who grew apart (RIP Brangelina). No, Strayed had a series of what we would generously call "affairs." What they really were is nothing less than a prostitute turning tricks to support a raging heroin habit (or sometimes just to have sex.)  An affair would at least add a touch of connection between humans. Or maybe some person stuck in a relationship who because of their past is not strong enough to break free. But with Strayed, this was not the case. Her husband was apparently very loving and doting. She wasn't looking to overcome anything; just wanted to sex up all of America. (If she was smart she would claim to be "bi-polar" like Suzy Favor Hamilton.)  Even after her divorce, while she was hiking the trail, her cuckold husband was still sending her care packages along the way of her supposed hike. But I am getting a tad ahead of myself.

Losing a parent very young is not something I make light of. I am sure this loss could have hurt Strayed deeply.  But it rarely seems as if this was the case here. Rather, Strayed gives the impression that she uses her mother’s death as the excuse for her string of bad behavior and hurtful life choices. However, it appears to be nothing but subterfuge for a person who simply wants to use others. Why else would she pack a box on condoms in her backpack for her hike along the trail?  If she could barely resist staring at the outline of the penis of the male nurse hovering over her dying mother (her words in her book, not mine), how could this poor girl be expected not to sleep with every trail runner she runs into along the way? And according to Strayed, she was absolutely irresistible to anything she happened along during her journey. This, of course, makes one want to take a look at Strayed. Upon seeing a few pictures, I think most would agree that while she is not homely, she is not exactly the Lady in the Lake either.  But I digress.
 
Personal tastes aside, Strayed mentions the numerous people she happens across. This seems a little strange. How did Strayed happen across so many people on a trail that is not exactly the National Mall? Tourists are not dotting this trail, mile after mile. The answer lies in Strayed’s own admission that she did what those in the trail running/hiking community call “yellow-blazing.” Basically, she hitch-hiked major portions of the route. So, for starters Strayed didn’t actually hike the whole trail. In fact, she didn’t come close. She received rides from many of her male suitors along the way. She skipped massive portions of the more difficult trail because she was absolutely unprepared to take them on. She spent a great deal of time not on the trail, down in area’s of higher population with apparently lustful men (and women) who could not help but want her so bad. Whatever.

In fact, given her descriptions of the trails, or general lack thereof, it is not a far leap whatsoever to wonder how much of the actual trail Strayed hiked. A person of already questionable scruples, it is not hard to believe most of what she is reporting was exaggerated, if not completely fabricated. The only person’s word we have to go on is Strayed’s. That’s what we call an unreliable witness in the law world.

(A side note here about Strayed’s surname. She claims she changed it to this after her divorce to signify how she was lost. As many have pointed out in a review of her work, so much of this tale would be forgivable if Strayed showed any remorse or growth along the journey. Instead, when she comes out on the other side of the trail, she seems virtually unchanged. Years later, recounting these events, she still says she is fine with her choices because obviously this is just the way she is. So if others are hurt or chewed up and swallowed along the way, so be it. Stay classy, Strayed.)

I could go on further to explain more why Strayed’s recounting of her hike bothers me but let me try to be more succinct. I just spent the better part of the year interviewing a large number of women for my third book, Running With The Girls. Throughout my writing career, I have made no qualms about the fact that I think writing stories about those who have come back from bad choices in life is the easiest type of writing possible. Anyone can write a heart-wrenching story about the recovering alcoholic or drug user. What is challenging is to show how inspiration and strength come from those who make the right choices and still get handed the business end of life. Showing how people handle the adversity of circumstances they didn’t choose is real inspiration. This doesn’t mean the others who did choose poorly can’t be applauded for their efforts. But to do so at the sake of not giving accolades to the ones who get back up from every knockdown they did not choose to be in the ring for is folly. And those people are often ignored for the low-hanging fruit of inspiring stories.

So when I see Strayed glorified for her own horrible choices, made again and again, and when she appears by every description to be a rather yucky person, you can see why my stomach turns. Moreover, given the crux of her book is how a completely physically unprepared person takes on this long hike, you can see the correlation I am making to the author of the article about running across Spain. 

Strayed brags about her knowing nothing about gear, nutrition, or even trying out her shoes until the night before her supposed journey begins. It is only through incredible luck, the graciousness of other hikers along the way, and probably more than a little stretching of the truth, that Strayed lived to tell her tale. There is nothing inspiring about the philandering drug user who takes on a hike she probably didn’t actually do. In fact, it is downright dangerous. The vast majority of people who tried to similarly do so would not end up with Oprah’s seal of approval and Reese Witherspoon playing them in a movie. Rather, they would end up dead in an abandoned bus like Christopher McCandless of Into The Wild fame. I have no love-loss for this story either but Chris was probably, at worst, just unprepared for his journey. (As for the author of the Spain article, they at least seemed to be a seasoned runner who had researched this trail extensively.)

There are so many fantastic and true stories to be told in this world. Why the ones which are dubious at best catch the eyes of so many is baffling and sad. I read account after account on running stories where people claim to have not even known that marathon was happening in whatever town and just signed up on a whim. No, you didn’t. You might not have paid for the race until the day before but you knew it existed. You had been training. You were ready to take on that challenge. Your story, without embellishment, is enough to inspire. You needn’t try to convince people to be impressed. Those who want to be impressed will be so. Those on the fence are probably going to see through the chicanery. Those who don’t like you or don’t care are going to continue to not like you or care. You could save their mother from a burning house and they would still call it self-promotion.

So, taper not only your workouts for your race but your need to play up that which is already inspiring and wonderful. In the meantime, stop glorifying those who do not deserve it. There are heroes all around us. People with incredible tales that need no CGI or embellishment. Find those people and share their stories. Stories like those in Wild need no celebration. They are exercises in futile navel-gazing with no payoff whatsoever. If this was a novel we would speak of the main character going nowhere. We went all this way to get nothing. Instead, it is a “true” story of a woman who has changed nothing about herself except her bank account. As I recoiled more and more at the thought of how this book smacks of so much bullcrap ala A Million Little Pieces (another Oprah pick, by the way) I purposefully looked up positive reviews. I wanted to see what someone could possibly find riveting and/or inspiring. Time and again, I sat there reading a review thinking: “Wait. What book are they reviewing?” I finally had to stop reading the positive reviews because how completely off-base they were was driving me mad. 

The fact remains I would be completely unsurprised if 90% of this book was fictional. I would also be completely unsurprised if the 10% which was true were all the unseemly character traits of Strayed. But even if that were the case, it won’t be remembered as such. Instead, it will be remembered, somehow as #1 presently on Excursion Guides on Amazon even though there is hardly ten words in the book anyone wanting to hike the PCT would use as a guide.

Many will say, where's the foul? If people gain inspiration from anywhere, that is a good thing. Perhaps that is true but the foul starts and ends with paying homage to some when others, who richly deserve it, go completely unheralded. Who here has heard of Kathy Faulks, Laurie Dressler, Debbie Higgins or Laura Seltzer? These four women just happened to hike the entire PCT the same year Strayed was out there with her ankles up in the area playing Russian Roulette with her health and occasionally hiking a bit. Where is their book? Why is it nearly impossible to find information about their journey? That is a book which should be available to buy and read.

This all said, I do, however, think Wild would make an excellent addition to your hiking backpack.  You are going to eventually need some kindling to start a fire up there on the trail.

4 comments:

TFMM said...

Well I think this might officially qualify as your 3rd book ;)
Well written. The biggest foul is whether it's the PCT, a marathon, half, etc. any form of cheating to me says "I don't value any time others spent training"

Tim Montgomery

TFMM said...

As for Oprah, she does have a track record...A Million Little Pieces comes to mind. In her defense she probably can't afford a research staff ;)

Laura said...

I too really disliked Wild (the book) and found Cheryl insufferable. She made so many horrible decisions, and constantly put the burden on other people to fix her problems, which I think is just gross. I am going to go see the movie, but more because I want to see Reese Witherspoon in the role, and also because I'm curious to see if they have made the character any more likable in the movie version. (Otherwise, I can't imagine why people would enjoy it,)

Emily W said...

I have been thinking about this review since I first read it, which happened to be while I was halfway through reading Wild and before I had seen the movie. Did you read the book? The movie leaves out a lot of details that I think answer many of your questions. Four instance, her friend mailed her the care packages not her husband. The part that surprised me the most was that she didn't, in your view, appear to have grown from the experience. However I think that is not at all the case based on what I read and based on her life after her hike. That is the whole point of the book, actually. Do you know something about Cheryl that is not in the book? If not, I think this is pretty unfair.