I was a Cub Scout.
Unlike some of the less committed members of my den, I believed.
I believed in citizenship, compassion, cooperation and courage.
In faith, health, fitness and honesty.
Perserverance and a positive attitude.
Resourcefulness, respect and responsibility.
All of the core values of scouting.
I took them so seriously that I, like a latter-day Benjamin Franklin, kept a record of my successes and failures in my pursuit of these virtues…until it became apparent that my failures vastly outnumbered my successes and I wisely abandoned the effort.
My major accomplishments were in the smaller things—like learning to tie my shoes or mastering the complexities of manipulating a necktie into a perfect knot.
In spite of my moral shortcomings and my limited skills, I looked forward to the moment when I would become that most admirable of human beings, the full-fledged Boy Scout!
It never happened.
My mother—full of fear, convinced that I would die of an asthma attack or suffer a fatal fall from a cliff or be devoured by a rampaging bear—refused to let me join the hallowed ranks of Scoutdom.
I’ve spent much of the rest of my life overcoming my mother’s fears and much of the last decade backpacking the Sierras, the difficult, sometimes dangerous backcountry where I’ve always remembered and attempted to practice the Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared.”
If you’re not, you put yourself and others at risk.
Good words to live by.
In many ways, a summary of all ten of the core values of Scouting—especially the last and most important: responsibility.
It was, I supposed, the failed Boy Scout in me that responded to the publication of a book about a young woman who, devastated by the untimely death of her mother, healed herself in her attempt to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. The book was called Wild, and its author was Cheryl Strayed.
As someone with an insatiable appetite for accounts of adventures (and misadventures) in the Sierras, I couldn’t wait to read Strayed’s memoir.
I read it…
…and I hated it.
What, you ask, is not to like?
Well, let’s see.
Cheryl loves her mother.
Her mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, becomes desperately ill, and dies.
Cheryl, torn apart by her mother’s agony, is supported throughout this dreadful ordeal by her husband Paul, a “kind, tender man” who shows sensitivity, compassion, love in his effort to keep her afloat emotionally.
And how does she repay him once her mother passes?
By having one mindless, meaningless affair after another, eventually ending up with a heroin addict and becoming a user herself.
Poor thing, you say.
After all, she lost her mother.
And what, I ask, about Paul?
Do we simply dismiss him as collateral damage in the self-indulgent, self-pitying disaster she makes of both his life and hers?
After all, it’s all about her.
Paul’s doesn’t seem to matter.
Ah, you say, but this is a story of redemption: it’s not about who Cheryl was before her journey into the Sierras. It’s about who she is after she finishes it.
Like the words from that wonderful hymn: “I once was lost and now am found.”
Oh, I see.
She emerges from her trip a sensitive, giving, responsible human being.
And she does this how?
By hitting the trail completely unprepared for the journey she’s undertaking, without a clue about the kinds of things she will need out there or the kind of dangers she may encounter.
By carrying a ridiculously heavy pack, wearing shoes that invite bloody blisters and lost toenails, failing to research water sources and their locations along the trail, and neglecting to check weather forecasts.
By demonstrating the same sort of irresponsibility she showed in her personal life.
By indulging in the same sort of self-destructive behavior that characterized her marriage.
And, of course, by ignoring the possible consequences of her actions on those around her.
It’s a near miracle that she did not require the intervention of a search and rescue team, whose members put their lives on the line every time they’re called out.
This, of course, never occurred to Cheryl.
Her adventure was, like her mother’s death, all about her.
The former Cub Scout in me, the would-be Boy Scout, read her story in disgust.
BE PREPARED, I wanted to shout.
SHOW SOME RESPONSIBILITY.
My cries, of course, went unheard.
But her book did not.
It became a runaway best-seller, thanks to Cheryl’s undeniable gifts as a writer and to Oprah Winfrey’s decision to promote her work.
And now it’s “a major motion picture.”
Everyone loves Cheryl.
Everyone but me.
Could it be that I swim out of the mainstream?
Could it be that “they” are right, and I am wrong?
But I must admit I’m curious, given the film’s 93% favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.
Curious enough to see the movie and give Cheryl a second chance.
After all, I admire the film’s director Jean-Marc Vallée, who did an astonishing job on The Dallas Buyer’s Club.
I’m a long-time fan of Reese Witherspoon, who is not only a major talent but who so believed in this project that she broke a cardinal Hollywood rule and put her own money into it.
And I’m desperate for a good movie in this slim season of Oscar worthy films.
…for next week’s report on this Scout’s reaction to the cinematic version of Cheryl and her adventures in the Sierra Nevada.