Leave No Trace starts with 13-year-old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster) living in the woods. At their camp, they play chess, read. Out of necessity and something else, they change locations frequently, covering up old campsites and building new ones miles away. Staying in one place for too long would mean letting their guard down, risking getting caught and thrust back into the world they consciously avoid.
Will clearly knows what he’s doing out in these woods, and he’s taught Tom well. They gather rainwater and forage for mushrooms.
Tom lights the stove as her father strikes flint over and over into a damp bundle of moss, willing it to catch. Willing himself not to need the fuel. He makes her practice hiding, disappearing into the brush, out of sight. She does, begrudgingly. He finds her too easily, makes her hide again.
Tom is growing up in the forest, but she is not a creature of it. She uses a propane stove, eats canned food, wears store-bought clothes. She may live outdoors, but the outdoors can still kill her. It almost does in the film, several times. She’s a teenager. “I’m hungry,” Tom says often, early in the film. “I’m hungry.” The film foregrounds the reality of this life, leaving in the cold and the wet and the ever-present struggle to find food.
Maintaining the wilderness means living lightly in it. No cutting down trees or hunting. Ironically, this stewardship necessitates engaging with society, going back on the grid from time to time to accumulate the things needed to survive off it—a tension that shoots through the film.
“Can you tell me where you live?” a woman from social services asks Tom, just after she and her father are found living in the woods, on public land. An enormous tree slices through the middle of the shot. It separates the woman from Tom, dwarfing them both. “In the park?”
Before the world changed, I used to think about how long I could survive in a societal collapse. In these fantasies, I was never in my Chicago apartment. Rather, when the airports closed and the president went into a bunker, I would be at my grandparents’ house with a basement full of pickled things and well water. I would grow vegetables and wash my underwear in the river, yet sleep inside in a warm bed. When things fell apart, I’d be removed at a safe rural distance, living off and with the land.
How strange, then, for the pandemic to come while I was living in a city, working a food service job. Instead of planting seeds and boiling sap into maple syrup in March, I stood in long lines at crowded grocery stores with empty shelves. I found that there wasn’t as much food in my kitchen as I thought, that my job wasn’t as secure as I’d hoped. That I was not, in fact, above needing help.
Early in Leave No Trace, Tom and Will visit a populated area to get supplies. “Why are we going to town today?” Tom asks, as they walk. “Your appetite’s growing,” Will says. “I’m growing,” she replies in a growly monster voice, stretching her arms out as if to indicate a body much larger than her slight one, joking. Tom spots a seahorse necklace on the trail, asks if she can keep it if it’s still there when they come back.
At the VA building, Will picks up the pills he sells to other veterans. After, in a grocery store, Tom holds up a candy bar to Will. “Want or need?” she asks him. “Both,” he says, his back to the camera, face hidden, voice soft as though he’s going to cry. The first time I saw Leave No Trace, I watched with bated breath for some dark secret to be revealed about Tom and Will’s relationship, but it never comes. When Will turns around in the grocery store, he’s smiling.
Will is a good dad, albeit one struggling to be so while living with trauma. Absent in him are the sins of many troubled film fathers. We never see him being violent, yet there’s the sense he’s had to be in the past. That violence has profoundly changed him. There’s a reason they’ve been living outside of society, living in the woods all these years. This life that Will has chosen for both of them is monastic, spare, full of love but also isolation. A removal from society that is intentional on his part but not on hers.
Ben Foster’s tightly bottled performance as Will makes every display of emotion vulnerable and intimate. Watching him smile at his daughter feels like an intrusion on a private moment. “If you’re in trouble here, now would be a good time to tell me,” a trucker says to Tom, before giving them a ride north. She knows what to say, gets them the ride, but the statement lingers in the air.
Is Tom in trouble?
When I was a camp counselor at a girl’s overnight camp in Vermont, a 12-year-old and her father visited the camp to give a talk. The previous year, they’d hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail together, starting at the northernmost point in Maine and ending in Georgia. Another member of their family, the mother, mailed them supplies and occasionally followed them via car, leaving packages of food and lots of support. People like this are well known to thru-hikers, leaving supplies for strangers as well as family. They’re called trail angels.
Listening to the father and daughter talk at my camp filled me with a sense of adventure. I wanted to do that, to hike alone through the woods for days and days. To be capable of choosing that kind of life. Now when I think about that talk, I think about the mother, driving down the East Coast with packages of food. Renting occasional hotel rooms for her husband and daughter to sleep in after a day on the trail. Caring for their other child.
There is Thoreau, and then there is Thoreau’s mother who does his laundry while he writes Walden. We are all of us receiving help. Even if we choose to ignore it for the sake of the story we tell ourselves. Still, the romance persists—of following a trail out of the world blemished with evidence of everyone’s shortcomings and into a new, quieter one.
Wilderness fantasies are not uncommon. The forest offers a place to run away to, a place that can hide and provide, if you know enough to let it help you. But Leave No Trace never lets us forget that we all depend on something outside of ourselves. Skill is not enough. Will and Tom can find food growing from the forest floor and build a campsite entirely out of natural materials. They still need to go to the grocery store for canned beans which Will sells his prescription drugs to pay for. Living in the forest does not exempt them from depending on their fellow people.
I’m never as self-sufficient as I could be, though I try to keep all my wants on a short leash. I bake my own bread. I knit hats and hope that this will save me. I’d like to think I could rough it on my own, if I had a little time to prepare. I can build a fire, provided there’s dry wood and some matches. I can forage for wild blueberries and absolutely nothing else.
After being furloughed a month into the pandemic, I started walking to a nearby restaurant that was giving away free groceries to members of the service industry. My roommate came with me. We’d put our masks and gloves on, avoid people in the street by taking a winding route of alleys and residential roads to the restaurant, then each grab a plastic bag of food we’d later wipe down at home.
One bag held an enormous can of meat sauce and a small loaf of white chocolate cranberry bread. Another, American Airlines-branded cups of instant noodle soup. My roommate is allergic to gluten and I’m vegetarian. The bags inevitably yielded things we couldn’t eat: a container of breaded chicken parm, a cup of chicken noodle soup. Things we took and then had to throw away.
When Tom and Will are finally apprehended, Tom is given aptitude tests to fill out, and asked questions. “We didn’t need to be rescued,” Tom tells the social services worker on her case, and this feels true. She and Will are reunited, given food and a small house on a Christmas tree farm. Someone decorated Tom’s room with small plastic horses before they arrived. Will is given work packaging Christmas trees. Shearing off the tops of trees to make them all uniform and tying them to helicopters. The sound is excruciating. Will hears them in his dreams, too; helicopters in another country, from a still-ongoing war. Someone always watching, or trying to.
This new world dazzles Tom, who takes in a church dance group and a 4H club meeting about rabbits with the same thirsty attention. Someone drops off a bike for her, and Will teaches her to ride it in their new driveway. “Look where you want to go,” Will says, letting go of the handlebars, watching her pedal away from him. She does.
Soon, the helicopters prove too loud. Will wakes Tom up, tells her to pack only what she needs. She bids the plastic horses goodbye and packs her bag. Eventually, they hitch north with a trucker, who drops them off somewhere in Washington in the night.
There’s snow on the ground where the trucker leaves them. Tom, tired, mumbles incoherently as they walk into a new forest. “We gotta keep moving,” Will says. “You can’t sit.” But she sits, cold and tired. This sequence of frantic movement, of Will pulling Tom from one place to the next, is flush with a sense of unease, dread.
Will buries her in ferns and brush to keep her warm. “Stay with me,” he says, digging her deeper into the earth. Somehow, the night passes. The sun comes up and they find an empty cabin. Will lights a fire. Tom cracks open a can of beans, cooks them on the stove. Alone in the forest, Will is calmer, more in control. I like seeing him this way. It’s easy to ignore that his actions the previous night nearly killed his daughter.
Will leaves Tom to go find food, says he’ll be back by dark. As night falls, Tom lights candles, puts them on the porch. She stands outside, nose red like a cartoon deer, watching for him. She looks elfin, a creature of the forest. You could forget that the forest almost froze her to death last night. When he doesn’t return, she goes looking for him, finds him unconscious in a ravine, blood in his hair. She flags down hunters, who drive them to a small encampment nearby, a mobile home community. A woman named Dale calls a friend, a former Army medic, who comes and treats Will. “You all right?” the medic asks Will, examining him. “Stay with me.”
In the forest, they are not beholden to other people, but they are also far from medical help, sources of warmth and food. The considerable risk of this life of self-sufficiency is that at any moment Will could just fall down a ravine and die. Tom, too.
Will survives, and they try to assimilate again. She wants to stay; he knows he can’t.
Tom follows him to the edge of the woods. He looks at her, wanting her to come with him, knowing she won’t. Despite all of it, despite knowing she needs to become her own person and have a community and grow in ways her dad can’t help her with, I want her to go with him. I want her to be one with the forest, invulnerable, not wanting and needing the things most of us want and need. People and appliances and music and cheap seahorse necklaces. I want her to buy into the fantasy of living in the woods, independent from other people, somehow immune to the pull of the world. I want this for her because I still want to believe in the fantasy, too.
In the last couple months, I’ve watched a lot of bad TV. I learned a TikTok dance, and bought a big bag of candy online. I’m not the self I fantasized about being under duress. I need people and help and distractions. Sometimes I spend money on things I don’t need, order from unethical companies. I try not to. Participating in society today means compromising yourself in a thousand small but telling ways. I try to split the difference as well as I can.
Running away is a compromise, too. Not everyone can run away from their past life, even when it haunts them, hollows them out. I read about people leaving major cities, escaping to family homes in the country. Everyone has a good reason for doing so, it seems. It’s hard to decry that instinct when I fight it myself, wanting to see my family, isolate myself further from the ambulances I hear outside the hospital down the street, the people crowding the park near my house, maskless.
But running away would mean cultivating the creature comforts of society from afar, reading and playing chess in a house in the country, divorced from the community that’s supported me and so many these past few months. Not dependent on anything but the privilege that got me there, to that place.
Ultimately, the appeal of the wilderness fantasy is in rendering myself vulnerable to nature, becoming entirely devoted to the selfish exercise of survival. I am forced to become the best, most intentional version of myself, because I have to be to survive. In this fantasy, I build my own shelter, find and prepare all my own foods. Because of these things, I can let go of the other, smaller questions from my past life. I am no longer plagued by distraction, the mundanity of paying the gas bill, getting harassed on the street. I am dependent on no one, because I am dependent entirely on the wilderness and my knowledge of it. Achieving total control by virtue of having no control at all.
Even when I dream of throwing it all away, I rarely consider the things I’ll actually miss. Books, baking. My roommate’s cat. How clearing my mind in the wilderness might mean never again filling it with the songs and words I like best, the clutter of a life spent acquiring favorite tweets and types of yogurt. I know myself well enough to know how fast loneliness would slip into this dream of living in absolutes.
But my quarantine fantasy is living in my grandparents’ house with my family, rural enough to grow food and take long walks in the woods without seeing another person, close enough to the world to be a half hour from the closest hospital, 10 minutes from the grocery store. It’s somewhere in the middle of my wilderness dream and my current life in the city. I want to have my homemade cake and eat it with a plastic fork.
Thoreau never lied about his mother doing his laundry. For him, going to Walden was never about living in complete solitude, shunning society. He just wanted some distance. I want some distance too. Instead, I get airline instant noodle soup in a bag and wait for my unemployment money. I still fantasize about the forest, being independent, but know I’m too enmeshed in this world to ever fully leave it. I accept help and reciprocate in the ways that I can. Try to let go of my fantasy and live where I am, compromised in a thousand tiny ways, surrounded by other compromised people. All of us trying.
“I leave this out for someone who lives up in the woods,” Dale tells Tom, gesturing towards the groceries she’ll hang in a bear-proof bag on the fringes of the forest. “Haven’t seen him in years, but I know he gets the food ‘cause when I come back the bag is always empty. Been in the same spot for years.” Eventually, Tom does the same for Will. Finding her way towards a livable compromise, just like the rest of us.