Trust Thyself: What Girl in the Woods Author Aspen Matis Found on the Trail to Independence

09/22/2015 04:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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If you think Girl in the Woods is about rape, think again. Since its release earlier this month, Aspen Matis' debut memoir has been making headlines as yet another spotlight on the horrors of campus sexual assault (Matis was raped on the second day of her freshman year at Colorado College). But those expecting a lurid cautionary tale will find something else entirely. The real story Matis tells in Girl in the Woods, which chronicles her 2,650-mile hike from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), is one of self-discovery and independence.

Girl in the Woods has been a long time coming. Aspen sold her book on proposal in 2013 based off essays she wrote for Psychology Today, Tin House, and especially the New York Times' Modern Love column that detailed Colorado College's dismissive response to her rape and how the dangerous trek across the West Coast helped her to heal. Hyped as a younger version of Cheryl Strayed's Wild (Matis hiked the PCT at age 19), Girl in the Woods is more like a strange, fascinating hybrid of classic Jack London and Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl - a poetic glimpse into nature's savage beauty that doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable aspects of love, sex, and hygiene.

The memoir's first chapters prove Matis struggled for identity long before her college trauma occurred. Her relationship with her overprotective mother is one of the book's recurring themes. Mom dressed her shy, sheltered daughter until she was 16, made her afraid to swallow pills and wear contact lenses, and sent her to sleepaway camp ignorant of how to brush her hair or shower properly. Confessing these embarrassing memories with refreshing boldness, Matis explains that hiking was the one area where she felt truly independent, and so her aspiration to tackle the entire PCT was born.

Everyone keeps trying to simplify the story by saying I was raped and so I walked from Mexico to Canada, but that is really not the case. The fact is that I wanted to do the walk before the rape [happened]. I'd even told my mother that I wanted to and asked her if I could, and she told me, "No, you can't take a gap year because if you do you'll be a year older than everybody else and it'll be harder to date." It's very disempowering to be told to distrust yourself. So really the rape was the straw that broke the camel's back. It was the thing that made me lose faith in every establishment that I'd been told to believe in... The trail [then became] a recipe for structure, a return to what I most loved.

Hiking the PCT is no small task, Aspen writes, as "only about 500 people each spring... attempt to hike the whole way to Canada, and fewer than half of those -- some odd 200 -- will make it all the way... Every single year some [of those] hikers die." There are several points throughout the book where Matis does come close to dying -- facing starvation, extreme cold and heat, and venomous snakes.

"The elements -- hypothermia, dehydration -- are huge risks," she says. "Being thirsty is a scary thing, not knowing where your next water will come from."

While reading Girl in the Woods I wondered if Matis might have had a death wish, but the opposite is true; she advances on her quest defiant, dubbing herself Wild Child and venturing into the mostly-male hiker communities without hesitation.

When I tell Aspen that she must be a very generous spirit to have trusted men so soon after her rape, she responds with a knowing grin.

I love the way you see it, but it was less generous and a little angrier, more like me reasserting my boundaries and experimenting as a teenager. "You think you can tell me how to feel about my body? I'm gonna get naked in front of you and you can't fucking touch me."

The depth of her anger comes as a surprise. On one hand Matis is a fount of practical information, layering the book with PCT statistics and natural history, including a few real-life horror stories about lost hikers. On the other, there's an aestheticism to Matis' personal anecdotes that communicates her joy in hiking directly to the reader. (It's like a Millennial take on the Romantic poets who so expertly extolled the sublime wonders of the world around us -- an apt comparison since Aspen also writes poetry and did the first draft of her Modern Love essay in verse.)

Particularly illuminating are the memoir's instances of "trail magic" -- supplies placed at strategic spots on the PCT by "trail angels," benefactors who host hikers at different stops along the way. These can take the forms of trail records (notebooks hidden under rocks or inside abandoned shacks), food (as in one memorable sequence when Matis finds grapefruit and a La-Z-Boy chair in the middle of a redwood forest), or various unexpected goodies one can only stumble upon with excellent timing and faith. In some cases, as Aspen relates, even running into another hiker at the right moment can be its own trail magic; early into her expedition she suffers her first dehydration and encounters a traveler with a guide to good water sources.

"When the trail provides, the trail provides," Matis affirms. "It's sort of like, 'You will be assisted on all journeys that matter.' You just have to show up and do your best. Walk with all your intelligence, and literally look for signs, because they're there."

She even shares one memory of trail magic that didn't make it into the book:

I was walking through the desert with Icecap [a fellow hiker who became her first boyfriend] and we came across this red tin box in front of a bush. We got all excited, like, "Oh my gosh, what's this?" We opened it and it was filled with lead weights of different shapes. Some were marble-sized, some were as big as a golf ball, and the box said, "Lead weight cash, take only what you need." So it was a joke - fake trail magic! It was pointing out the absurdity of what we were doing. "How absurd that you're walking from Mexico to Canada, so consider this as luck." And some hikers took a chunk and carried it the entire way.

After everything, it would seem that luck is finally on Matis' side. She's currently working on the screenplay for a TV adaptation of Girl in the Woods with producer Dylan Hale Lewis (Suburban Gothic, Excision) and is planning her second book, a novel called Cal Trask based off characters from Steinbeck's East of Eden. The future looks bright.

[On the trail] I learned how to represent myself as I wanted to be seen. The world gives you what you put out, and if you walk with confidence people will want to know you. If you apologize for your presence, people will go, "What the fuck are you doing here?" You teach people how to treat you.

What would she like people to take away from the book?

To victims of sexual assault or any trauma, tell your story. Only then will you find someone who had similar experiences, with whom you can connect and move forward. Know you are worthy of love and respect -- the way to self-love and admiration is to behave like someone you love and admire. You can [empower] yourself... shed the weights that are holding you back. Be brave.

I was once told that the strongest stories have basic plots: man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. Aspen Matis has been brave enough to combine the three into one impressive feat of transformation. It's this curious mélange of elements that will keep the interest in this young writer alive -- not the nightmare that happened to her, but the dreams she's made real for herself. Looks like she carried some trail magic the whole way after all.

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Author Aspen Matis (photo credit: Corrina Gramma)

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Girl in the Woods is now available from HarperCollins.