There really isn’t debate around it. Cheryl Strayed did a LASH (Long-ass Section Hike) of the Pacific Crest Trail. And then wrote about it several years later. Yet, for some reason, people seem to want to cast doubt.
Since hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and even while on the PCT, I’ve encountered a number of voices (primarily from Men), that are fairly dismissive of Cheryl Strayed’s accomplishments — both as a writer and as a hiker.
In general, the dismissal of Cheryl’s experience and the negative reception toward her time spent on the PCT and writing about the PCT I’ve found can mostly be broken down into a few key criticism types:
1) Primarily Sexist
It is a well-known phenomenon that when women start entering previously male-dominated fields (from academia to sports or politics), there is generally a lot of pushback and dismissal for what they have accomplished or done. This may not be intentional sexism, but it is still sexism and is present and a very common occurrence (ask your female friends for anecdotal data, or look at the endless number of academic articles on this).
As expected, there generally are a lot of men that tend to be fairly dismissive of Cheryl Strayed’s achievement. This attitude is typically shown when people diminish her level of accomplishment (e.g. “it wasn’t even the whole trail”). Similar attitudes are less pervasive toward men that hold very similar accomplishments (e.g. Bill Bryson’s LASH of the AT). As her best-selling book, Wild, is not solely about adventures or hiking there is also dismissal around her writing, This dismissal often stems from the book not being “wilderness-y enough” because a large part of the book deals with Cheryl’s personal life, struggles, and relationship with her mother.
2) Increased Popularity of Thru-hiking
Many folks that I’ve encountered seem to have disdain for Wild as it largely increased the popularity of the PCT (and thru-hiking in general). People seem to prefer keeping experiences exclusive, and when something like a best-selling book or movie increases popularity so quickly and dramatically, the experience is no longer as exclusive. People can feel threatened and attacked that their personal hobby/tribe/thing is becoming mainstream.
For outdoor spaces, this is a known phenomenon and ongoing issue. There is considerable tension between reserving the right to have and utilize public land for recreation while preventing overutilization (read: keeping usage low). Ultimately, there is a need to have other people appreciate public lands and “Wildernesses” so that these areas remain protected, yet people don’t like when their special place ends up being used by others. Given that “overutilization” for recreational resources is hard to define, there is a lot of grey area, which further causes value problems and tribalism. Many people value the feeling of “Wilderness” yet as utilization goes up for a given wilderness area, the encounters you will have with other people will similarly increase, decreasing the very “Wilderness-y” feel of the experience.
Because Wild dramatically increased popularity of the PCT, the trail is, ironically, much less “Wild” than it once was. As such, many people dislike the fact that Cheryl Strayed wrote about her experience on the PCT, which resulted in more people, especially Women, considering a section hike or thru-hike of the PCT. In contrast, however, cell phones and GPS communicators have had a much larger impact on “Wilderness” in most of these wildspaces compared to Wild, so there is certainly an ideological disconnect here.
3) Increased Risks to the Sport from the Unprepared
I’ve encountered many people saying that Wild has resulted in an increase in the number of unprepared people hiking the PCT, and this is ultimately bad for the sport as it increases costs for wilderness rescue, trail maintenance and restoration, trash removal, etc. However, there is scant data to indicate that people encountering the PCT after Wild are less prepared than those prior to Wild. Furthermore, most wilderness rescue/incident risk statistics tend to indicate that a larger proportion of young men are more likely to need rescue compared to Women (even when controlling for numbers/age), and that one of the safest things to do to decrease risks in outdoor, risk-possible activities is to have a Woman in your group.
In general, Wild has increased the number of people interested in backpacking and thru-hiking. To me, this means more people will care about the spaces I care about, and more trails and recreation areas will be created/opened/cared for. While I do get annoyed by crowds and permitting systems and traffic, and all that comes with increased popularity, I think the pros far outweigh the cons.
Even with the explosion of the PCT and JMT in California, I really have no issue finding phenomenally great wilderness spaces that are now better maintained and cared for due to increased revenue and political support for these spaces. If Wild further helps increase the diversity of people out on the trail, this seems like a good thing. All-in-all, who really cares if Cheryl hiked only 1000 miles of the PCT? We’re all out on trails for different reasons, and her accomplishment is no lesser or greater than the accomplishments of thousands of other people. She just seems to be a much better writer and storyteller than most other folks with similar accomplishments.