Memoir, Non-Fiction, Travel

Girl in the Woods

Cover image for Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matisby Aspen Matis

ISBN 978-0-06-229106-6

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.


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Humour, Non-Fiction, Travel

The Almost Nearly Perfect People

Cover image for The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Boothby Michael Booth

ISBN 978-1-250-06196-6

“Though there were many aspects to Scandinavian living that were indeed exemplary, and from which the rest of the world could learn a great deal, I grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of nuance in the picture being painted of the region.”

After fifteen years of living in Denmark with his Danish wife and two children, Michael Booth noticed something curious. Although Denmark, and the other Nordic countries of Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, frequently topped global happiness surveys, they didn’t seem to be particularly happy. Moreover, the British and American media seemed to view the Scandinavian countries as some kind of northern Utopia, oblivious to the quirks and foibles that were clearly visible to him as a long-time resident of the region. This perception persisted despite the staggering popularity of the dark and gruesome mystery novels of the likes of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larson, and the surprising success of Scandinavian police dramas abroad. This cognitive dissonance prompted Booth to pen a travelogue about the aspects of Scandinavian history and culture the rest of the world seems willfully oblivious to.

Although he covers five countries, Booth is clearly the most familiar with Denmark, his long-time residence, a fact which shows in the fifteen chapters dedicated to it compared to only five for Iceland, and seven apiece for Norway and Finland. Only Sweden comes close, with eleven chapters, mainly filled out by Booth wrestling with the quiet contempt with which the other four nations sometimes regard their Swedish neighbours. Aimed at a British or American audience, Booth frequently refers back to equivalent British and American statistics to provide context for his readers as he explores the vagaries of Scandinavian life and culture.

Booth is an inquisitive and wide-ranging journalist, but you will get the most out of the book if you are expecting a humourous and insightful travelogue rather than an in-depth work of sociology. A more serious social inquiry wouldn’t leave the most likely explanation for Scandinavian happiness to a drive-by comment in the epilogue: “One of the keys to happiness, experts tell us, is autonomy in one’s life—the luxury of being able to decide your own destiny and achieve the fulfillment of self-realization.” The economic equality, educational opportunity, and social mobility of the Nordic countries provide this autonomy in spades. Booth has nevertheless made a concerted—though not scholarly—effort to delve into the Nordic psyche.

Whereas the rest of the world tends to idealize the Nordic countries, proximity has given them their own brotherly rivalries, and Booth turns to these stereotypes and jokes to interrogate the strengths and weaknesses of these modern Utopias. Why do their neighbours all think the Finns are drunks even though they consume no more alcohol than the European average? Why do Finnish men think Swedish men are effeminate? Booth has many theories about these perceptions, and he floats these balloons out to his various interview subjects with abandon. He allows them to poke holes in them, never particularly offended if one of his ideas doesn’t pan out. He is a sharp interviewer in that his ideas elicit interesting responses rather in that he is always right in his initial observations.

Despite some griping, it is quite clear that Booth is actually very fond of Scandinavia, something which is never more evident than in the blusteringly humourous chapter about Nordic monarchies. It is one instance where Booth seems to be wearing his own rose-coloured glasses as he views the region, venting his bewildered outrage about the fact that these supposed paragons of modernity are still clinging to such an “absurd, anti-democratic carnival” as monarchy. As the flustered English republican puts it, “That’s the kind of nonsense us class-ridden, postcolonial, socially desiccated Brits cling to; this is not the cut of social democracy’s jib!” Even as he views their faults, Booth can’t help but idolize the Scandinavians a bit as well.

Overall, the reader is less likely to emerge with a negative impression of Scandinavia than a newfound sense of differentiation and complexity amongst five countries that North Americans tend to regard as basically similar. Though I have spoken in generalities for most of this review, I now know more about the aftermath of the Icelandic banking collapse, the impact of Norway’s $600+ billion sovereign oil fund, Sweden’s open door immigration policy, and Denmark’s chart-topping personal income tax, in addition to more humourous topics like oil-rich Norwegians hiring Swedes to peel their bananas, and long-locked Swedish soldiers donning hair nets in the 1970s rather than submitting to a military buzz cut. Booth has both an eye for the weird, and a nose for the serious issues that cause Nordic life to fall somewhere short of our idyllic fantasies.

Adaptation, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Travel

Page to Screen: Wild

Movie tie-in cover for Wild by Cheryl Strayedby Cheryl Strayed

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

ISBN 978-0-307-59273-6

“I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back into the person I used to be – strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way.”

In 1995, at the age of twenty-six, Cheryl Strayed had managed to turn her life upside down. After her mother’s early death from cancer when Strayed was twenty-two, her family fell apart, she got divorced from the man she had married when she was only nineteen, and she was regularly doing heroin with a new boyfriend in Portland, leading to an accidental pregnancy. In an effort to get her life back on track, Strayed decided, almost on a whim, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2650 mile path that stretches from Mexico to Canada. Her trip began in Mojave, California, and ended in Cascade Locks on the Oregon/Washington border, bypassing the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the middle section, a distance of about 1100 miles.

Strayed devotes a few chapters at the beginning of the book to her childhood and the events that led her to the trail, but she largely avoids falling into the trap of front-loading her back story. Instead, much of it is dispersed throughout the book, coming up at relevant moments in her ruminations along the trail. While we find out in the beginning that she fell out with her step-father after her mother’s death, we don’t find out why until about halfway through the book. This means that we get to the meat of hike and the PCT experience more quickly than in many memoirs.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s film adaptation takes this structure even farther, relegating almost the entire backstory to flashbacks while Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) is on the trail. A large portion of the film’s runtime consists of these memories, along with a generous helping of voice-over. Vallée also resequences and consolidates events and characters, and omits others entirely. Strayed’s step-father and sister are among those who have been deleted from the story, along with a large number of the other hikers. Major incidents are consolidated for added drama, while several minor characters are combined in the guise of Ed the trail angel. Other items, such as Strayed’s famous Bob Marley t-shirt, appear in the film merely as a nod to the book, without surrounding context or events. However, most of these changes have relatively little impact on the story.

Strayed went into her trip woefully unprepared, a fact that begins to become clear to her from her first day on the trail, and which only grows more apparent from there as she struggles to carry a pack she can barely lift. As she gains some experience, she does wise up a little bit, opting to bypass the snowed-in Sierra Nevada Mountains. The book strikes a decent balance between cautionary tale and inspiration; Strayed doesn’t undersell the importance of the experience she had on the PCT, but she also readily admits to the situations where her lack of knowledge and preparation could have cost her life. Hopefully those who are inspired by her trip will take her mishaps as a cue to be better prepared themselves.

Overall, both the book and the film it inspired are much more about Strayed’s personal journey than the hike itself, and Wild certainly doesn’t purport to be any kind of guidebook, for all the mimicry it has spawned. We see this reflected in the film’s understated cinematography, which spends much of its screen time on Reese Witherspoon, and lavishes relatively little attention on the dramatic landscapes of the trail. The most recurring feature of the natural landscape is the fox that represents Strayed’s deceased mother. Unfortunately this conceit, which is touching in its single appearance in the book, is overdone in the film. The movie similarly manages to stamp the life out of other powerful and affecting scenes, most notably the death of her mother’s horse in a flashback.

Though much has been made of Strayed’s recklessness as a solitary hiker, far from being in danger most of the time, other hikers on the PCT readily helped one another out, and as a woman alone Strayed actually found that she experienced more kindness from strangers who were worried about her. This comes through clearly even in the film, where several such events are omitted. Most (but not all) of the dangers came from the trail itself (snakes, bears, rough terrain, snow) or her own lack of preparation (not carrying enough water, buying boots a size too small) rather than other people. Strayed’s account of her trip is actually a great testament to the sense of community that has grown up amongst PCT hikers, and those who live and work at the outposts along the trail. Strayed is a strong writer who can evoke both the day-to-day grind of trying to walk up to twenty miles under a heavy load, and also the charm and magic of the culture than surrounds this undertaking.


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