The call of the ‘Wild’

Last year’s best-seller about the Pacific Crest Trail has inspired thousands to take a hike.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICENovember 17, 2013 

The Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile hiking and equestrian trail that reaches from Mexico to Canada, has been called the Appalachian Trail of the West Coast. But that description does it a disservice, for the Pacific trail is longer, wilder, more punishing and also grander than its East Coast cousin.

Starting in desert chaparral near the Mexican border, the route climbs (and climbs some more) along the spine of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges as it pushes relentlessly northward. It crosses the western arm of the Mojave Desert. It traverses the lonesome high country of Sequoia National Park in California and Yosemite’s magazine-cover Tuolumne Meadows. It winds through stately Oregon forests near Crater Lake National Park, and it skirts along the shoulders of volcanoes like Mount Rainier in Washington.

As a memorable character, the trail is perhaps second only to Cheryl Strayed, 45, the author of the memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” which has sold more than 1 million copies since appearing in March 2012.

In the spring of 1995, a young Strayed hit the trail to lose her problems and find herself. She had a lot to shake off. Ravaged by the loss of her mother four years previous and freshly divorced, she was as adrift as the new surname she had chosen. With a volume of Adrienne Rich poems in her leaden pack and the still-fresh bruise of a heroin needle on her leg, she began trudging north alone on the trail, starting on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Uncertain how long she would last or what she would find, she was determined to push ahead.

Since “Wild” has appeared, the trail has beckoned to many women who, like Strayed, needed a change in their lives and believed they might find it on this challenging, sometimes lonely route, seeking the combination of “promise and mystery” that Strayed described so enticingly.

One of these is Linda Blaney, 53, of Las Vegas.

“She had relationship issues, and I was in the same boat,” Blaney said in a recent phone interview. “I couldn’t stay married, have been married and divorced three times. And she talks about her mother … and we have similarities in that area.”

Blaney, who had day-hiked avidly but had not done much more than that, read of Strayed’s huge backpack (in the book the author nicknames it “Monster”) and her ill-fitting shoes and thought to herself: “If this woman can do this, any woman can do this. I can do this.”

Last spring, after months of preparation, she took time off from work to tackle the trail’s southernmost stretch, solo.

“I needed to find something in me,” Blaney said of her three-week trek. “I just started right at the Mexican border, at Campo. And I walked 266 miles. I won’t lie: I wanted to walk 274. But my blisters at the end were horrible.”

From her home in Portland, Strayed said that Blaney’s story has become a familiar one in her inbox, explaining that “maybe approaching 1,000 people” have emailed her and said, “I have read ‘Wild’ and you have inspired me to do a hike.”

But don’t picture High Sierra passes clotted with distraught heroin addicts staggering toward Canada on five-month walkabouts. The Wild Effect, as it’s been called, has been large but also nuanced, according to Jack Haskel, a trail information specialist for the nonprofit Pacific Crest Trail Association, which works with the Forest Service to manage the trail and provide permits for long-distance hikers.

“My general impression is that ‘Wild,’ so far at least, is translating into people doing more weeklong backpacking trips and weekend backpacking trips,” he said in an email. “I’ve encountered five to six long-distance hikers inspired by ‘Wild,’ and a lot more shorter section hikers.”

The Pacific Crest Trail saw a record number of long-distance hikers this year, with permits issued for 1,044 “thru-hikers” (people headed all the way from Mexico to Canada) and 822 more permits for people hiking 500 miles or more, the trail association said. The trail’s popularity has been growing annually for several years, however, and this year’s record is likely due to several reasons, not just “Wild,” Haskel said. (On average, fewer than half of those requesting thru-hiker permits actually complete the hike, he said.)

“Wild” has helped many women “see that it really wasn’t dangerous for them to be out there,” said Leigh Swansborough, an addictions specialist who, with her friend Martin Mondia, recorded video interviews this summer with women on the John Muir Trail in California for Mondia’s college project on the psychology of female backpackers. (The 211-mile John Muir Trail shares the Pacific trail route for much of its length.)

“Cheryl’s book really made it possible and believable for women to see that doing something out of their comfort zone, or very big, was possible,” Swansborough, 42, said. “Women aren’t really taught that in society.”

The book hasn’t been a touchstone for women alone.

“At least half of my fan mail is from men,” Strayed said. After all, much of “Wild” is universal.

“One strand of this story doesn’t have to do with the wilderness at all,” she said. “It’s grief and loss and how to bear what we cannot bear.”

Graham Harris is one of those men. Harris, 23, enjoyed day-hiking around Southern California but had not been on many backpacking trips. In May 2012 he and his girlfriend were hiking in Laguna.

“We came across the dead body of someone I had grown up with,” he recalled. “It was a suicide.”

The discovery shook Harris.

“It was a sad, pretty dismal few months,” he said. “I didn’t really know how to cope with that.”

Last fall, during his senior year at the University of Southern California, his best friend and hiking buddy told him to pick up “Wild.”

“I do partially credit reading ‘Wild’ with helping to bring me back to being excited about going out hiking and going out into nature again” he said.

The Wild Effect may be just beginning. More readers are finding the book, which appeared in paperback in March. And a film adaptation of “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon, being filmed in Oregon, promises to put the story, and the trail, before an even larger national audience.

Some trail observers predicted that the Pacific Crest Trail will experience its version of “the Bryson bump,” a jump in hikers who attempt the whole trail similar to the surge in popularity the Appalachian Trail experienced after Bill Bryson’s best-selling 1998 book, “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.”

“The ‘Wild Effect,’ I think, is going to be long-term,” Haskel said.

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