Pacific Crest Trail, America’s wildest through-rail, with its infamous harsh passages, has recently rose to further prominence in the latest Reese Witherspoon starrer – “Wild,” based upon the personal accounts of Cheryl Strayed’s journey to bring her life back together after losing everything that deeply meant to her.
Wilderness epics have been around since the beginning of cinema. But from the 1912 silent film “The Conquest of the Pole” to “Jeremiah Johnson” to “Into The Wild” to “127 HouRs,” nearly all have traced the paths of men far from civilization. But the fact that WILD takes a different, less expected direction drew a devoted group of filmmakers.
Says Witherspoon, who produced the film with her partner Bruna Papandrea: “Wild” is about so many things that touch people. It’s about life, love, loss and family. It’s about how a woman who thought she was completely broken, but found a way to reconstitute herself.”
Recalls Strayed: “It was a huge physical undertaking for me to hike the PCT for 94 days, but it was also very much a spiritual journey. I turned to the trail as many people turn to the wilderness — at a time when I felt lost and desperate, when I was in a place where I didn’t know how to move forward. In many ways the trail taught me to literally just put one foot in front of the other again.”
“If I would have been a person who didn’t love the outdoors, this role would have been impossible,” laughs Reese. “As it was, it was extremely challenging on every level, and far more physically challenging than I ever anticipated. There was climbing up the side of a mountain and balancing in river crossings and marching through chest-deep snow and falling into a freezing river. I had no idea it was going to be as hard as it truly was. But it was also very, very rewarding.”
The heart-stirring vistas rife throughout the shoot were a constant inspiration for Witherspoon, and a reminder of why the untouched spaces of wilderness called so strongly to Cheryl, even at rock bottom. “It fills you up,” the actress says. “To see the incredible beauty of our world makes you believe everything might really be OK. I think that’s how Cheryl came to feel.”
The PCT became a character in and of itself –embodying the rough-hewn allure of the American West. Winding through some 25 National Forests and 7 National Parks, it rises to 13,000 feet in the Sierra and dips to sea level at the Columbia River, passing through such diverse and inimitable territory as the Mojave Desert, Sequoia National Park, Tuolumne Meadows, the volcanic terrain of Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier, the forests of Crater Lake – all the way to the Bridge of the Gods, the cantilever bridge that crosses the Columbia River from Oregon into Washington state.
Ultimately, as she entwined deeper and deeper with the character, Witherspoon found that Cheryl’s infamously weighty backpack and ramshackle boots became a part of her own soul. While the backpack is often a source a comedy in the film, it also became a metaphor for Cheryl learning to shoulder the weight of the past and keep walking on.
“There is something about being in the wilderness,” sums up Jean-Marc Vallée, “becoming part of nature, learning to see it not as an enemy but as a friend, experiencing the beauty and the quality of the air that can be life-changing. Cheryl went into that and kind of lost herself for nearly 100 days. She was alone with her demons, her dreams and her past and it led her to ask: ‘What do I really want to do with my life?’”
Hike along with friends and family when “Wild” opens February 4 in cinemas nationwide from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Warner Bros.