In 1995, after the death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed looked for comfort by dabbling in sex and heroin. When that only made her problems worse, Strayed embarked on an ambitious journey to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail. In 2012 Strayed turned her trek into a memoir: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This Friday, September 19, Strayed will be at the Paramount Theatre to talk about her book and the upcoming film version starring Reese Witherspoon.
Strayed had no backpacking experience when she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which extends from Mexico to Canada. With very little preparation, she set out on a trip where she'd encounter wildlife, unexpected weather, dangerous situations and her own personal demons. She calls the journey a self-designed rite of passage.
"It marked the time in my life where I realized I had to live without my mother, and I had to accept things as they were, even if they weren't how I hoped they were," Strayed says. "I needed to pick myself up and move on. And the hike, in so many ways, taught me how to do that."
Before penning Wild, Stayed wrote for various publications, authored her first novel, Torch, and served as the voice behind the Rumpus' advice column "Dear Sugar." It wasn't until thirteen years later, in 2008, that Strayed began writing about her hike on the PCT.
"I wanted to talk about what the hike meant to me," she says. "It took some time to reflect on the hike and to grow up. I think that's important with memoirs. In order to gain a broader, wider, deeper perspective, some time had to pass."
The book went on to top the New York Times bestseller list and become the first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0. Before it was even published, Strayed had fished around to see if anyone in Hollywood was interested. Witherspoon's name was suggested because she had just opened a new production company, Pacific Standard, and was looking for strong female stories, Strayed says.
So Wild bypassed the limbo that many optioned books enter, and landed in the hands of a crew that was passionate about the material. That group included Witherspoon as Strayed, Laura Dern as Strayed's mother, Nick Hornby as screenwriter, and Jean-Marc Vallée as director, following up on his success with Dallas Buyers Club.
The filmmakers were very concerned with staying true to her story, Strayed says, but even so, the process took a lot of trust. But through feedback and her personal connection with the crew, Strayed says, the movie feels very close to her story.
"There are some scenes where I wanted to stand up in the theater and say, 'This is exactly how it was,'" she says. "Like the scenes where Reese tries to put on her backpack or the death of my mother. It's exactly how was it was in my life. It's my memory come alive on the screen."
Even though she made her journey years ago, Strayed still remembers the immediacy of being there on the trail. "The last day of shooting, we shot the first day of my hike in California -- that first mile on day one. It was exactly where I walked, and that was really powerful to me," she says. "It was a combination feeling of where has the time gone, but what a long journey I've been on since then."
Strayed's talk at the Paramount starts at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 19. For tickets, $36 to $50, go to altitudetickets.com.
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