“Wild,” a film about the emotional and physical journey of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, debuted in theaters last month. It’s an adaptation of the book by Portland author Cheryl Strayed, and in it Reese Witherspoon plays a young woman struggling with her personal baggage, both spiritual (grieving the passing of her beloved mother) and physical (the overburdened backpack she affectionately names “Monster”).
It is a unique, personal tale; but at the same time a universal one — the story of spiritual renewal, self-discovery and adventure. Oregon’s section of the Pacific Crest Trail, an integral setting in Strayed’s novel and a primary filming location for the motion picture, offers plentiful opportunities for these stories, as all who have attempted even one segment of the trail can attest. Crossing the California border going north, and after skirting the Soda Mountain National Monument, the trail passes through the Sky Lakes Wilderness. True to its name, this high alpine area features 200-some high-elevation pools, which collect some of the purest naturally occurring lake water on the planet.
As the trail heads north, it avoids climbing to the rim of Crater Lake. This detour can be met with mixed feelings by through-hikers, who may be disappointed to miss a view of Oregon’s most iconic lake but do not relish the climb to the caldera. Those who do venture off the trail are treated to a view of our state’s signature landmark and only national park. Its clear blue waters and stately Wizard Island attract nearly a half million visitors every year and bring precious tourism dollars to the neighboring communities.
Crater Lake behind them, hikers now face Mount Thielsen and its surrounding wilderness. Thielsen’s craggy spire acts as a beacon challenging them north. The trail then narrowly misses a less imposing landmark. Diverting to the west takes hikers to the tranquil shores of Waldo Lake, named after Oregon politician, judge and conservationist John B. Waldo. It is Waldo’s efforts that helped conserve Oregon’s scenic mountain wilderness and whose trek from this lake to Mount Shasta in California would eventually become a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
From here, the route cuts through the popular and spectacular Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas. Anyone who has visited these areas on a summer weekend or simply marveled at their peaks can speak to their breathtaking beauty.
Beyond that, and before passing over the Bridge of the Gods into Washington, lies Mount Hood, whose noble peak is the tallest in the state, welcoming skiers, backpackers and mountain bikers, and on whose slopes reside the icy maws of the Sandy Glacier Caves, the largest such caverns in the contiguous United States.
We Oregonians take pride in our natural wonders, but must also acknowledge that the wildlands the Pacific Crest Trail passes through do not exist without effort. Generations of conservationists like Judge Waldo have stepped up to preserve the Cascades and special places all across Oregon, from the Oregon Dunes to Hells Canyon and from the Painted Hills to Steens Mountains. Now it’s our turn.
Our wildlands and wild rivers give us so much — from experiences of jaw-dropping vistas and the challenges hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, to a day trip of catching salmon or peeking over the rim of Crater Lake 30 feet from our car — we owe it to ourselves, and to the generations who will come after us, to do a better job as stewards of these special places.
Oregon protects only 4 percent of its land mass as designated wilderness, compared to 15 percent in California, 10 percent in Washington and 8 percent in Idaho. We can do better.
The story of “Wild,” and the story that lies within each of us, our children and our grandchildren, can serve as our inspiration. With it, we can create a future where all those who journey Oregon’s coastal beaches, mountain peaks and desert trails are able to find spiritual renewal, freedom and solitude in the wilderness.