Pacific Coast Trail, Oregon, USA: New Reese Witherspoon film Wild retraces Cheryl Strayed's epic hike

It's late November as I trudge along a barely visible trail carved out by snow shoers. Snow laden Hemlock Fir trees resembling ladies in billowing ball gowns tower overhead, as Gray Jays hop from tree to tree. The pale afternoon sun filters through the woods as we plod along in silence, making embarrassingly little headway.

The altitude, new boots, the endless pushing through the late-autumnl snow, means the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) does not give up her miles easily. I'm wearing completely the wrong gear: yoga pants and borrowed gloves best suited to a mild winter back home, boots so new I'd literally opened the shoebox in the car park before we set off, and a friend's fleece-lined jacket. I stupidly forgot to bring water.

Long before Cheryl Strayed immortalised the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in her international best-selling memoir Wild, the 4265km-long route was considered one of America's great long-distance hiking trails. Divorced and having lost her mother to cancer, Strayed, a clueless, 26-year-old heroin addict, packed it all in and found herself again on the trail, which crosses three states.

Most of the trail goes through wilderness. There are no bikes allowed on the PCT and "thru-hikers" require a permit. Of the 700-800 people who intend to hike the trail in a year, more than 40 per cent don't make it. Next year the numbers of thru hikers is expected to at least double thanks to the Wild effect.

I think of Strayed as we march through the winter woods, the only person we see a lone snowboarder in the distance. At the end of January, the film adaptation of Wild will be released in Australia starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed. Most of the movie is filmed in Oregon, where Strayed, at the end of her arduous three-month journey, made a new life for herself.

The book struck a chord with millions of readers across the globe. Many admired the courage of the then-20-something young woman who set off alone on what can only be described as a physically and mentally punishing walk.

Trail purists begrudgingly respect Strayed's solo journey but are quick to point out that she didn't know what she was doing, nor did she complete the entire trail. Strayed hiked 1100 miles (1770km), beginning her journey in Mojave, California and finishing at the Bridge of the Gods on the Oregon-Washington border.

Her book resonated with me, even though I was at best a day hiker, and at worst the sort of person who really shouldn't stray alone into the woods. For me Wild was never about the walk itself, but rather the ability of someone to completely turn their life around, no matter how far from grace they'd fallen.

Greg Monero, our Mt Hood Adventures tour guide, better known as Chopper, lives at Government Camp about an hour  from Portland. Just behind the small alpine village at the base of Mount Hood is Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain. This is where Witherspoon was filmed throwing her second boot, with their distinctive red laces, off a cliff after regrettably losing the first. It's the opening scene of the movie, and the boots feature on the Wild book cover.

Chopper points out what could possibly be cougar tracks in the snow, but could just as well be dog paw prints, as we reach a fork in the trail that either takes you to Frog Lake or continues on the PCT. At the end of our hike a lone wolf bolts across the road and is quickly swallowed up by woods that now look creepy with their long, dark shadows.

We arrive at Timberline Lodge just as the sun is slipping behind the 11,239 ft. (3429 metres) snow-capped Mount Hood, the highest mountain in Oregon and the second most-climbed mountain after Mt Fuji.  Inside the iconic hand-hewn 1936 lodge, open fires blaze and the enticing smell of wood smoke greets us as we peel off layers of hats, coats and boots. My new boots, recreated by Oregon boot company Danner for the Wild movie, have left weeping blisters at the top of my heels. My socks are stained with blood. I feel I have truly walked in Cheryl Strayed's footsteps, albeit a pitifully short distance.

At breakfast we are joined by Jon Tullis, who has worked for Timberline near on three decades, and is a regular hiker and somewhat of an expert on the PCT. The trail passes to the north side of the lodge. Hundreds of hikers, just like Strayed, make a beeline for the lodge, the closest building to the PCT, for its renowned breakfast buffet and to collect resupply boxes from its post office.

Tullis orders a plate of four types of bacon (yep just bacon) for breakfast as he explains the impact Wild has had on both guests to Timberline and on the PCT. All the snow scenes for the  movie were filmed at Timberline, and Witherspoon stayed here in the conference wing during filming. Strayed herself has a cabin on the mountains and does occasional readings at the Timberline store.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of hikers and as an alpine lodge along an alpine trail, we've embraced the walkers as part of our culture." Most people who hike the trail are in their late teens or early 20s, or they're "grey beards", older hikers who can afford to take off for a month or two, Tullis says. Most come in to the lodge and dump their packs. They haven't had a shower, and are typically smelly and very hungry. "They'll organise their whole schedule to arrive at Timberline for breakfast or lunch and they'll camp at the buffet for an hour and a half or more, sometimes even returning the next day."

Tullis takes me to see an original 1938 PCT sign and a second one higher up, which points to Canada in one direction and the other to Mexico, Mount Hood looming in the background. Despite having never walked more than a day at a time in my life, just seeing the sign pulls at something deep inside of me. I'd give anything to just start walking, yet rationally I know I wouldn't last more than a week.

I farewell Jon and Timberline's resident St Bernard Bruno and head for Hood River via the stunningly beautiful Highway 35, on the Hood River Fruit Loop. Thousands of Hemlock Firs line the drive through the Colombia River Gorge where farms sell directly to the public.

At the enchanting Apple Valley Country Store, with its sign out front advertising Huckleberry milkshakes, my car practically pulls over of its own accord. I buy a slice of just baked apple pie pulled out of the oven less than 15 minutes before. From the store I watch a deer forage for food in the snow. I enjoy a tasting of Italian wine varietals nearby at Marchesi Vineyard and pick up a takeaway coffee at the country township of Hood River, pushing on for Cascade Locks and the Bridge of the Gods where Strayed finished her gruelling walk.

The sleepy town of Cascade Locks is bitterly cold the week before Thanksgiving. It is here that the Bridge of the Gods crosses into the state of Washington and it's where Strayed poetically finished her hike on the PCT. I walk to the trailhead, surrounded by snow, and then onto the steel truss bridge.

There's no footpath so I walk precariously close to the icy edge as trucks and cars pass by. The view downstream of the Colombia River to the toe of the Bonneville Landslide is beautiful in a moody and contemplative way. Dark clouds above threaten freezing rain, while the churning river below looks like it could easily swallow you whole. The air is achingly cold and my fingers pain as the icy air seeps through my inadequate gloves.

Like Strayed I'd planned to finish my journey at the bridge, but on the way back to Portland I detour via the Historic Colombia River Highway. Just off the road I pull over to see the remarkable Multnomah Falls plummeting 189 metres fed by an underground spring from Larch Mountain. Partially frozen, the ancient waterfall is hypnotic as it tumbles down the mountainside. Almost 2 million visitors a year come here to see it. A little further on is the route's best-known lookout Crown Point, just 24 kilometres east of Portland on a spectacular promontory on the Colombia River Gorge. When I pull up, the wind is so strong it shakes the car. As I open the door, the wind almost rips it off its hinge. The wind blasts inside the vehicle, sending loose items whirling aka the Wizard of Oz. It picks up my gloves and sends one flying over the headland. I somehow manage to catch the other, but then realise, not unlike Strayed, that one glove is almost as useless as one boot. Laughing, I throw the other one to the wind. How wild it was.

The writer travelled courtesy of Travel Oregon, Travel Portland and Qantas. Wild begins screening in Australia on January 22.

TRIP NOTES 

MORE INFORMATION

travelportland.com, traveloregon.com, foxsearchlight.com/wild

GETTING THERE

Fly to Los Angeles with Qantas with onward connections to Portland, Oregon with Alaska Airlines, see qantas.com

STAYING THERE

Timberline Lodge offers rooms ranging from $US150-325 per night. It is expected to release a Wild package for guests, including a short hike on the PCT, an overnight stay at the lodge, where Strayed visited towards the end of her hike. See timberlinelodge.com

TOURING THERE 

Mt Hood Adventures offers two-hour to two-day summer and winter hiking, snowshoeing, horsepack riding tours along the Pacific Crest Trail from the historic Government Camp at Mt Hood, priced from $55 per person or $100 for a full day. See mthoodadventure.com.

The story Pacific Coast Trail, Oregon, USA: New Reese Witherspoon film Wild retraces Cheryl Strayed's epic hike first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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