As someone who is planning a thru hike of the PCT I have been worrying about something lately that has been termed the Wild Effect by the PCTA. The Wild Effect was coined by the PCTA before the movie came out to talk about the positive impacts that Wild was/is going to have on the PCT and the growing concerns from the community about possible negative effects the movie could bring to the trail. Positives from the movie include greater awareness and appreciation for the trail and more financial and volunteer support for the PCTA. Negatives include higher numbers of people hiking leading to heavier use of already fragile and impacted areas and more uneducated people wandering into the woods without proper preparedness leading to an increase in rescues, fires, and litter which could cause potential backlash from landowners leading to decreased access to certain areas for all. Phew. This is what the PCTA calls the Wild Effect and while I am worried about these negative impacts, I also see the Wild Effect as a way to talk about the popularization of hiking, but more importantly, thru hiking in mainstream culture. I can’t lie, I have been feeling A LOT of resentment towards the Wild Effect. It is a resentment that, until recently, I couldn’t sort out. Was I resentful of the book or the movie, the people hiking because of the book or the movie, or all the people who kept asking me if I was hiking because of the book or the movie? As I usually do, to sort out my feeling, I began to write. This is what I have managed to come up with:
I have read Wild. I read it before we hiked the AT, before it was hugely popular or a movie and to be quite honest I liked it. A lot of people didn’t like Wild, they thought that Cheryl Strayed acted like a selfish brat and that it is unrealistic to fix yourself by walking around in the woods. I disagree, I think Cheryl Strayed experienced loss that few of us can relate too and I personally am unsure of what my own reaction would be in such a difficult circumstance, maybe I too would leave everyone I love and turn to drugs. I also don’t think it is unrealistic for walking around in the woods to help center you, heal you, make you focus on yourself and simplify your life. But I am not here to critique the book; whether you liked the book or not the fact of the matter is it exists and it got turned into a movie. Together the book and the movie are responsible for alerting the masses to the phenomena of thru hiking and creating a massive spike in the number of people hiking the PCT.
This affects me on a personal level because this book and this movie are directly impacting the PCT’s nature. Until the movie came out the trail only experienced a couple hundred thru hikers a year but 2014 saw a huge spike in thru hike attempts, forcing the PCTA to put a permit system into use, which will hopefully spread out when people start the trail. 2015 is supposed to be even crazier, and as proof of that Kyle and I have already met two random people who are planning on thru hiking. When we hiked the AT in 2013 around 3,000 people attempted it that year. Only a quarter of them finished but regardless of how many people dropped off trail Kyle and I still felt like there were too many people around at all times. Kyle and I were looking forward to the quiet trail the PCT was rumored to be. Let’s face it, we are kind of hermits. We were looking forward to getting away from the crowds and the mayhem and the partying that surround the AT and getting into the wilderness and the beauty of the PCT, without all the people. But now the number of people hiking the PCT is starting to resemble the AT and our experience promises many of the same things we ran from on our first long trail: crowded campsites, full hostels, large hiking groups with stupid names, hiker trash, the list goes on. Both Kyle and I kick ourselves on a daily basis for not just going out and hiking the PCT right after the AT, seizing that last chance to experience it before it changed. We should have seen the writing on the wall and now it is too late, it is likely the trail will never be the same.
These changes make me resent the book, and thus the movie, because I see a direct correlation between Wild hitting the mainstream media and the PCT changing forever. But these changes also point my resentment in another direction, towards the people who are heading out on trail this next year.
The book and the movie happened, that’s that, but the real change on trail is coming from the fact that so many people read or watched them and have been inspired to head to the woods. I have very mixed feelings about these people. On one hand I resent their existence because it is causing the changes on trail and because they have turned something I wanted to do into a fad. On the other hand I admire that something as little as a book or a movie could cause them to take a huge risk and potentially change their lives forever. When I was first starting to worry about the Wild Effect these “bandwagoners” were the people whom I felt the most resentment towards but lately things have been becoming clearer…
This is how many conversations about the PCT go:
Me: “Well, yeah, so my fiancé Kyle and I are planning the hiking the PCT next year.”
Other person: Looks at me with that knowing judgemental look in their eye as if saying, aren’t you adorable but instead says, condescendingly, “Oooh, did you read Wild?”
Me: Calmly I respond, “Yes, I did read Wild, but no, that isn’t why we are hiking the PCT” but inside my brain I am screaming in frustration.
Wild is part of the mainstream media for the most part, so I can’t blame people for imagining that I am one of those people who saw the movie and got a wild hair (haha). But it turns out that I am not one of those people, I have my own reasons for wanting to do the PCT, and it frustrated me to be lumped into this group of people who are jumping on a bandwagon and potentially ruining my wilderness experience! These are the thoughts that I have been having for months now and I am not going to lie, at times they have left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. They have actually impacted the way I see the trail, made it less desirable to me. Parts of me have thought maybe we should mix it up, do it North to South or do a different trail entirely, just to be unique, just to get back that sense of originality that the Wild Effect is robbing me of, because at the end of the day, even if our reasons are different our actions will be the same as everyone else starting the PCT next spring.
The more I think these negative hateful thoughts the more I feel like an idiot. So what, I am not as unique as I thought I was? One of the few things that made me feel really special is now going to be attempted by a bunch of other people who did nothing more than watch a movie so I am angry at them? How incredibly selfish and small-minded of me. It took me a while but I finally realized that instead of going around feeling angry at the people who are going to hike because of Wild I should be angry at the people who are judging them for doing so. And thus, angry at myself. How can I be mad at people for getting out of their comfortable homes and comfortable lives and getting into the woods and growing? Isn’t that what I profess to want for everyone? Even if they don’t finish, just taking that step is going to change their lives forever. And then I think about what it will actually be like out on trail. Out on trail it won’t matter why you started this crazy adventure, we will all be walking the same path, experiencing the same storms and hardships, talking about gear and eating ramen and farting. Whether you started it because you had a friend that did it before, or you want to lose weight, or you watched a movie, once you are there the only reasons that matter are your reasons to stay. The bottom line is there is part of me that knows, deeply, that I shouldn’t be upset because people are taking to the woods, I should be glad.
So to summarize the crazy whirlwind of emotions I just wrote down: At first when people would ask me if I was hiking the PCT because of Wild, I would get mad. Mad at all the people hiking the PCT, inspired by Wild, because I felt they were impacting me and my reasons for wanting to hike. Ultimately no one should be able to impact me and my reasons for wanting to hike, those are completely my own and rising above my petty desires to be unique have allowed me to see that. But what I also realized was that I was misdirecting my anger. Yes, I am still slightly frustrated at all the changes that have happened on trail but as more people take to the woods that is inevitable. As someone who dreams of being an outdoor educator and connecting people with nature I want more people to take to the woods. Now when people ask me if I am hiking the trail because of Wild I say no, but then I go on to defend the people who are. I have realized it isn’t the potential hikers I am angry at, it is the society that judges these people for following their dreams, no matter where those dreams were born from. By recognizing this and being able to redirect my misguided feelings I have also reconciled that bitter taste in my mouth and gotten back to embracing the PCT as the amazing experience it is going to be.