When Cheryl Strayed hit the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 for the epic hike that would form the narrative spine of her bestselling memoir, Wild, she was equipped with everything but the proper footwear. The REI-brand hiking boots she purchased prior to her adventure turned out to be too small, leading to blisters and sore feet as she trudged along the PCT’s long, winding paths. In a scene that opens both the book and the new film version of Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, her aggravation becomes so great that she removes both boots, only to watch one tumble down a cliff and out of reach. Pushed past the breaking point, she hurls its mate into the air, making the rest of her way on a pair of jerry-rigged hiking shoes—sandals bound up with heavy duct tape.
Fortunately for Strayed, she knew she had a replacement pair waiting for her at the next rest area. Magic? No. Just good customer service on the part of REI. As Cheryl learns during one rest-area layover, the 75-year old company that’s long been beloved amongst outdoors-y types, has a policy whereby hikers can return or replace ill-fitting or defective equipment while they’re in the wild…provided they can get to a phone to call customer service, of course. So one phone call to REI later and Strayed had a new pair of proper-fitting boots dispatched to her next stopping point on the trail. “Thank you so much,” she says, relieved. “You will be my favorite company for ever and ever.”
That’s certainly great in-movie product placement for REI. But do you have to be a bestselling author or major movie star to get that treatment? According to a company spokesperson, both the book and movie are 100 percent accurate in their version of events. “REI’s 100-percent Satisfaction Guarantee doesn’t cover ordinary wear and tear or damage caused by improper use or accidents, so if someone were to lose their boots or in this case, throw them off a cliff, I cannot guarantee we’d replace them,” the spokesperson says via e-mail. (It’s worth noting that the cliff-throwing incident actually came after Cheryl phoned in for a pair of replacement boots. The movie shuffles chronology around to reflect the character’s fractured state of mind.) “We do understand that accidents happen, and in these situations I recommend the REI member call REI customer service to discuss their situation directly with our team.” (Visit REI’s website for the full guarantee.)
Before you doublecheck the size on your REI boots, you should know that one thing has changed since Cheryl made her journey in the mid-’90s. In June 2013, the company updated their policy to put on a one-year limit on all returns and replacements, except in cases of manufacturing problems. But they’ll still ship items to hikers who are already on the trail and in need of replacement boots purchased within the past year. REI’s spokesperson says that they haven’t noticed an uptick in those kinds of requests from through-hikers since the publication of Wild or the release of the film. Still, they hope the movie reminds outdoorspeople that REI is always there to help them when they’re feeling lost in the wilderness. “With over five million members, we do understand that accidents happen. In those situations we recommend REI members call customer service to discuss their situation directly with the team.” Now how would a hiker go about getting a replacement crate of Snapple Lemonade — Cheryl’s favorite drink — sent to a rest area?
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Photo: AP Photo/Fox Searchlight Pictures