Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“I doubted I could survive in the woods without these very basic things to help me. It seemed like a tremendous leap of faith to forsake the tools I’d always been told I needed. And yet leaving college to walk was such a massive leap of faith already, and nothing I’d ever trusted or believed in seemed true any longer.”
In 2009, at the age of nineteen, Aspen Matis dropped out of Colorado College only weeks before completing her first year, and headed south to join the 2650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, where it begins at the Mexico-California border. Matis’ college career went off the rails before classes even began; on her second night on campus, she was raped. The college’s rape counsellor was kind, but advised Matis to pursue mediation, and the mediator’s inconclusive finding plunged her into depression and drinking. She moved off campus so that she would not have to live in the same dorm as her rapist, and began planning her escape. Alone in her dorm room at night, researching the PCT and planning her hike helped propel Matis through the year. Girl in the Woods chronicles her journey from the Mexican border to the hills of southern British Columbia, and all the bumps along the way.
Matis’ memoir follows the common format of beginning at a tense moment in medias res, and then flashing back to her childhood and the events that put her on the path to the PCT. The insecurities that were exacerbated by her rape were already present, thanks to a distant father and a suffocating mother so intensive that she dressed her daughter until she was sixteen. Matis was painfully immature when she went off to college, unable to put in her own contact lenses, or even swallow a pill. On the trail she is by turns vulnerable and brash, trying to figure out how to present herself to the people she encounters, and weathering their judgement. Given how harshly women’s memoirs of self-discovery are often treated, I suspect there is much more judgement and condescension to come.
Matis initially wanted to hike in order to be alone, and maybe raise some money for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, which provided her with the support she did not receive at her college. But neither goal went to plan. Her mother refused to let her tell the rest of her family that she had been raped, and offered to donate $1000 to RAINN herself in exchange for her daughter’s silence. And out on the trail, Matis quickly realized she was surrounded by men. There were five men on the trail for every woman, and most of the other women were hiking with their significant others. Much of her journey is a fumbling exercise in figuring out how she relates to men in the aftermath of being raped, and more cringe-worthy decisions are made along the way.
Matis was already a life-long hiker when she set out for the trail, and had spent the previous two summers hiking solo in California. However, in order to hike the PCT she became an ultralight hiker for the first time, carrying minimal gear in order to walk fast and far. This decision was partly practical; the window to hike the entire PCT is finicky. It depends on starting late enough for most of the snow in the High Sierra to have melted by the time the hiker reaches Northern California, but not so late they are snowed out of the Cascades when they reach Washington. The more you carry, the slower you walk. But for Matis there was clearly an emotional component, as well. “I felt the pull of ultralightness, the desire to not need things, to go light, to be lighter,” she writes. The burden of her gear was in addition to the emotional burden of her rape which she was already carrying. However, going ultralight put her into a number of dangerous situations, from running out of food and water, to hypothermia, to getting lost. However, the drama is lessened by the knowledge that Matis was carrying a satellite phone provided by her parents, their sole condition for allowing her to undertake the hike.
Matis hiked the trail fourteen years after Cheryl Strayed, but three years before the publication of Strayed’s best-selling memoir, Wild. The allure of the PCT has been fueled and popularized by Wild, but was by no means created by it. Matis’ first essay on her hike was published in the New York Times in May 2012, a month before Wild was selected as the first title for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. However, Strayed is one of the many people Matis thanks in her eight pages of acknowledgements, and certainly there are notable similarities between the two books. Both hikes were inspired by devastating events and family struggles, and resulted in a name change. Strayed was recently divorced, and chose a new last name for herself. Matis changed her first name and, a year after her hike, got married, thereby changing her surname as well. Unlike Strayed, Matis hiked the entire trail, even going so far as to separate from a new hiking companion when she realized that she needed to be at a different trailhead in order to avoid skipping seventeen miles. Girl in the Woods both exists in the shadow of Wild, and stands separate from it.
You might also like The Big Tiny by Dee Williams.