Earth Day: Why I Still Like Stories About People Who Do Dumb Sh*t in Nature; or, Books with “Wild” in the Title

9 Apr


You know what books I’m talking about*.  They’re the ones where some idealistic yet world-weary young man (or woman) decides that the only way to overcome their problems is to disappear from modern life into the wilderness.  True, they are unprepared, but their mettle more than makes of for their lack of planning. Armed with nothing but their pioneering spirit they venture off and… probably something awful happens.  Because they weren’t prepared.  Because as far as determination takes you, it doesn’t replace healthy caution.  Because nature doesn’t care about life goals.

Before I defend this genre, I should elaborate on the critics.  To do this, I called across the room and asked my husband why he hates these types of stories so much.  The complaints include (paraphrased and edited for length and language):

  • As someone who enjoys the outdoors, I feel zero sympathy for a person that went off into the wilderness without any sort of preparation.
  • I’m supposed to have sympathy for idiots who got themselves killed, or almost killed, because of their own poor choices.
  • Why is someone who made horrible life choices supposed to be a role model?
  • People who have no experience outdoors think that they can do the same thing and everyone will think they’re so strong.
  • But I think most people who don’t like Into the Wild are just Republicans that are like “Ah! Sean Penn and hippies!”

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

There you have it folks, the case against survival bios.  I definitely identify with some of the points.  When Cheryl Strayed described heading out onto the PCT in hiking shoes she was breaking in for the very first time, I practically screamed at my computer (I listened to the audiobook) as my feet broke out in sympathy blisters.  I get that people who have not been out-of-doors much might read these books without much cynicism and that might get them into trouble.  Actually, from every intellectual angle, I can see why these books should be deeply offensive.

The problem is, I really like them.  Even with all their foibles, I get caught up in the inherent optimism of their protagonists.  These people, who generally have not been brought up loving nature, feel pulled toward it to reinvent themselves.  I’d also argue that while not nearly as prepared as they should be, both Cheryl Strayed and Chris McCandless did what they thought was their due diligence.  Strayed discusses her foray into online discussion groups and McCandless carried in a plant identification book, thinking it would be enough.  While most seasoned veterans can immediately see their errors, these people didn’t have the life experience to know just how much they didn’t know.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The mistake they both made was that they believed that nature is a restorative force.  They’d read the romantics and saw the wilderness as something that would provide for them and heal their souls.  Unfortunately, anyone who’s spent any time in the wild knows while those things can be true, nature is very unforgiving to even the best prepared.  I think it’s that tragedy that draws me to the stories – the dichotomy between two of nature’s most powerful attributes.

I don’t see McCandless or Strayed as role models.  They’re interesting characters, but not my heroes.  Their stories may be the reason these books were written, but that’s not why I read them.  I like them because it reminds me of why we need to respect the wild places of the world.  They remind us that we are small parts of something large and we are not always in control.  That’s the feeling these people were chasing in the first place and, whatever else happened, I think they probably found that.


*If you don’t, they’re Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and Wild by Cheryl Strayed


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