A long, solitary walk in the wilderness can change your life

Going into the wilderness may seem like an American concept, but its an age-old method of restoring your natural balance, writes Claire Droney

YOU will cry. Either in shock when a bare-faced Reese Witherspoon howls obscenities at the sky after pulling off her own toenail, or in solidarity when she hugs her now ex-husband, or in grief when she her arrives too late at a hospital.

Witherspoon’s new movie, Wild, based on the 2012 memoir by Cheryl Strayed, is a gritty look at loss and its aftermath. The actress plays Strayed,who, aged 26, walked the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) four years after the premature death of her mother. Addicted to sex and drugs, Strayed read a book about the trail, bought camping gear, and began her epic journey, weighted down by a backpack that she could barely carry.

Having run out of water, escaped from predatory men and navigated hostile landscapes, Witherspoon emerges from her 95-day journey redeemed. But is this realistic? Can a long, solitary walk in the wilderness change your life?

“When you’re in the middle of a wilderness journey, you can’t give up and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t go back, you can only go forward. And that’s an incredibly powerful experience to go through. You come out the other side and it takes a while to filter through, but those little poignant moments of experience that are so huge actually stay with you forever,” says Jo Roberts, CEO of the Wilderness Foundation, a charity that organises wilderness trails.

“If you go into the wilderness, you can’t hide from yourself anymore and you can’t hide so much from other people. You are what you are and this is what you see and you’ve got to be ready to be willing to face your faults.”

The physical and mental endurance required in the wilderness can be a powerful metaphor for the rest of your life. “Sometimes, when you’re out of your comfort zone, you’ll find out lots of things about yourself and see how you respond to that,” says director of Lough Allen Adventure Centre, Kevin Currid.

Having spent 20 years taking teenagers and adults on wilderness trips (where they learn mountain-climbing, shelter-building, fire-lighting, fishing, and even how to make dandelion root coffee over a campfire), Currid believes in the redemptive power of nature.

“Wilderness isn’t a panacea, but it’s one of the tools we have available to help these young people. I have living proof that it works, in case studies of all the young people I’ve worked with.

“Often, particularly for lads, they need some discipline and a male influence. On our trips, they do stuff that they really love, and they develop a respect for the environment. Being in the wilderness allows them to deal with the situation they’re confronted with,” says Currid.

So when Witherspoon can’t find water at the well, she plods on in the searing heat, inch by inch, and eventually finds a murky water hole. When she can’t light her stove, she stoically chews cold grits.

Her transformation from junkie to ‘Queen of the PCT’ is palpable. Shedding her fear with each step, she begins to admire the vastness of the landscape, or the beauty of the wildlife all around her, as much as the first cool sip of Snapple bought with her last pennies after she has lost a vital piece of equipment.

“Wilderness trips help to tune people into their environment and into the here-and-now. For a few days, all of your objectives are pared down for a night — it’s about getting from A to B, building a shelter, cooking some food and sleeping,” says Currid.

“Being in the wilderness simplifies our extraordinarily complicated lives, and allows us to hear our own voices.”

The wilderness effect can be experienced anywhere, even in an urban setting. “You don’t have to go up Kilimanjaro to find wilderness. I try and promote that you can find it wherever you are. Go to the bottom of your garden and pitch a tent for the night. If you actually stop and looked, you’d be amazed at the life and sounds you experience,” says Currid.

Switching off technology is part of a wilderness trail. “If we keep our heads so busy all the time, it creates anxiety and stress and it never allows your inner world to just bubble forth. It’s the quietening of the mind that allows the internal dynamic to come out. Our unconscious is what keeps us safe,” says Roberts, who says the young people she works with visibly sweat during their ‘turning off the phone’ ceremonies on a trail.

“It’s about understanding an addiction and the toxicity of it. It’s very important to free ourselves of it and have moments of quiet, to just be,” she says.

Whether it is for two hours, two days or two months, being in nature can offer a new and changed way of looking at our lives.

“In each one of us human’s lives there is a possibility to go do something brave and different, and to give ourselves a new life narrative — because, sometimes, that’s what we need, to tell a different story,” says Roberts.

“And until we actually take that step and venture into the interior of our own minds and bodies, and the exterior of this beautiful world we live in, we kind of short-change ourselves a bit. So [with this book and film], Cheryl gives us that hope, that it’s possible to do this.’

Wild opened in cinemas last weekend


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