BY: GLEB VELIKANOV
Many consider Bill Bryson’s 1998 classic “A Walk In The Woods”, along with Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 best-selling memoir “Wild” to be powerful stimuli. Upon reading either book, they consider completing, or thru-hiking the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on the west coast, or the Appalachian Trail (AT) on the east coast of the North American continent. Film adaptations of both novels, with “Wild” having come out in 2014 and “A Walk In The Woods” currently in production, will no doubt greatly contribute to the trails’ popularity. Some have expressed concern regarding the potential of trail overuse, compounded by the possibility of less-than-experienced and poorly-skilled newcomers endangering themselves and others, while trying to “rediscover America” or “find themselves” with a backpack slung over their shoulders.
The Rae Lakes, Pacific Crest Trail
Thru-hikers, past, present and future, are a part of a unique and colourful community, built around camaraderie, mutual assistance and an ongoing exchange of information. It is only natural to want to share one’s experience of completing a multi-month hike with those aspiring to do the same in the future. It seems normal to want to preserve that primitive wilderness experience for future generations. No one would want to see overuse-triggered trail erosion, trash strewn about, or hordes of wilderness philistines calling upon emergency rescue services due to inability to plan their hike, navigate the terrain or failing to follow elementary safety precautions.
Media channels associated with thru-hiking have been abuzz with opinions and predictions regarding these matters, ever since “Wild” made an appearance in book form. The film version only stoked the fire that is the blogosphere, evoking responses ranging from praising the author and the filmmakers for creating exposure to vilifying them, contesting that the book, along with the film, justify recklessness, alluding to Strayed’s description of sex-drugs-and-hiking-inexperience exploits. One elusive and anonymous web author even started a site, www.donthikelikewild.org, dedicating it to qualms with “Wild.” A lot of its content seems to be centred around personal opinion, questioning Strayed’s character. It is reasonable to expect similar reactions when “A Walk In The Woods” makes an appearance on the big screen, regardless of the fact that Bryson’s book managed to exist with a lot less backlash compared to “Wild,” partially due to the fact that films seem to resonate more with a broad audience.
Hawksbill Mountain, Appalachian Trail
Organizations tasked with preserving, protecting and promoting the trail—the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC)—for the most part accepted the trails’ depiction in the books and on-screen. PCTA resolved to work with the filmmakers, helping them select the most appropriate spots along the PCT, or authentic-looking substitutes for the filming of “Wild”. The ATC is currently engaged in a similar, albeit less involved collaboration with the makers of “A Walk In The Woods.” According to ATC Information Services Manager Laurie Potteiger, the Appalachian Trail, traditionally the most used long-distance trail, should see increased use after the film’s release.
Great Smoky Mountains, Appalachian Trail
“We welcome the exposure and want to engage in thoughtful and proactive management of the situation through strategies to work with the increased numbers of hikers,” added Pottieiger. Such strategies include encouraging voluntary thru-hiker registration on the AT, which would help disperse the abundance of hikers usually present on the southern stretches of the trail, where most would-be thru-hikers start their trek every spring. Both the PCTA and the ATC encourage experiencing the trail other than in one uninterrupted shot, for instance hiking only portions of the entire trail, which is also called “section hiking”, or traveling the entire length of the trail, but not in a continuous stretch, shuttling between different sections according to the weather or the presence of early-season snow, known as “flip-flopping.”
Crater Lake, Pacific Crest Trail
It seems that despite some negative responses, most hikers, trail angels (individuals who assist thru-hikers by providing them with shelter, food and transportation to and from the trail) and other parties involved with the long-distance trail community are ready to take on the challenges associated with the major burst of publicity created by “Wild” and “A Walk In The Woods.” “It is easy to get stuck in the echo chamber of the Internet,” said PCTA Trail Information Specialist Jack Haskel. He noted that the phenomenon of concern about the number of newcomers has always been present, and the positives stemming from the exposure created by “Wild”, a media event like no other, when it comes to the PCT, help offset the drawbacks of having to manage informing and educating those newcomers and addressing the overuse issues. After all, making certain that hikers travel safely, while observing Leave No Trace (LNT) methods—centred around minimizing one’s impact on their surroundings—are important elements of PCTA’s #ResponsiblyWild campaign, launched at the time of the film’s release. Potteiger added that in ATC’s case, managing the increasing flow of people on an already popular trail, while adhering to the organization’s conservation, promotion and information goals is a hefty, but not insurmountable task. One could argue that the “naysayers”—ones who criticize the portrayals of the trails—sometimes emphasize picking apart certain details about the books or films, rather than focusing on ways to resolve possible challenges.
Lake Arrowhead, Pacific Crest Trail
Both organizations stress the importance of public support towards their cause, be it donations or volunteering. The remarkable opportunity to experience nature, plants and wildlife, along with striving towards a lofty goal of walking over 2,000 miles should remain there to be enjoyed by many more. Trail maintenance, information and education done by the PCTA, the ATC and the volunteers, along with translating exposure into financial support, seems to be the best, most constructive way to make certain that happens. “We want people to responsibly enjoy arguably the best wilderness experience in North America,” said Potteiger.
San Diego-based trail angel Pea “Girl Scout” Hicks has been putting up hikers at his home, prior to driving them to PCT’s Southern Terminus since completing a thru-hike in 2007. He stated, “It is unclear whether ‘Wild’ is influencing the increasing number of hikers, in fact, only a small portion of them claim it influenced their decision to give the trail a try.” Let us hope that all aspiring hikers, regardless of the reason for starting their trek, are safe, clean and responsible, contributing to the preservation of the wilderness around them.