When I hear Pacific Crest Trail I picture Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, or a sweaty Reese Witherspoon lugging a trash bin sized backpack across the silver screen. But Girl in the Woods, a debut memoir by Aspen Matis depicts overcoming a different trauma on the same route. After being raped her second night of college at age 18, Matis was devastated and confused. She attempted to seek justice through her school, but her assailant denied his crime and accused her of lying. While he continued his education unscathed, she was relocated to a dank dorm off campus to avoid him. Unable to focus on her studies and disappointed by her family’s unemotional responses, Matis fled to Mexico determined to hike 2,650 miles to Canada in solitude.
While authors Strayed and Matis may share the trail, the similarities end there. Girl in the Woods is a younger coming of age story. In 1995, Strayed hiked as a 26-year-old divorcee, but released her best-selling book in 2012 at 44 with well-aged insight. Matis’s account of her 2009 journey at 19 is a much rawer perspective, published when Matis was 25.
As a fan of Strayed’s potent honesty regarding her challenges—mourning the death of her mom, quitting heroin, ending self-destructive sex—I was initially drawn to Girl in the Woods because of the apparent similarity to Wild. However, by the end of the first page, Matis’s idyllic upbringing by Harvard-educated parents marked a riveting contrast in plots. Her happily married mother and father are solvent lawyers who fish on annual vacations in Colorado. Matis grew up privileged, without knowing loss, in Newton, Massachusetts—statistically the safest town in America. She has two athletic adoring older brothers and is close with her mom, who showers her with affection, private painting lessons, ceramics, and weekly strolls to Whole Foods. Matis longed for a closer relationship with her reserved dad, but he was still silently supportive, often calling her “a genius.” She grew up living what many would label the American Dream.
Yet Matis’s picture-perfect environment drafts her into a disempowered adolescent. While she is loved, like most college-aged kids, she still feels awkward and uncomfortable in her abilities. After her assault, she struggles to regain control of the direction of her life, to learn self-care, and come to a new understanding of who she is post-crime. Because of these elements, Girl in the Woods is an elegant revision of a familiar but powerful tale—an overprotected child maturing into a young woman.
Through vivid scenes, Matis describes her encounters with the wilderness and fellow hikers. As she gains independence and begins to heal, she recognizes her own naivety and selfishness. In one of the more rattling moments, after a tension-filled relationship, her boyfriend bails on her in the snowy high Sierra, taking the map they’d shared. Matis then loses the trail and faces 130 miles without food before a resupply point. In freezing temperatures with soaking wet shoes and no clear direction of where to go, she begins to recognize death is a possible outcome of her recklessness.
Evading hypothermia and facing danger more than once, Matis must learn who to trust for help as a single female on the trail. A fascinating part of her suspenseful storyline is the encounters with trail angels—nameless contributors who provide survival tools and presents for hikers, such as a shelf with jugs of water in the California desert, a basket of ripe peaches in Oregon, free beds to sleep in for a night. At critical points, this generosity is the reason that she survives and bonds with other trekkers. In between epiphanies of who she is becoming on her path, the trail angels are a pleasant addition, especially for anyone who enjoys knowing more about walking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Matis’ brave amount of clumsy personal flaws are modernly relatable. She unravels faulty judgment and stretches for self-awareness. Like Strayed, Matis is a crisp and poetic writer. You may think you’ve heard the story already with Wild, but Girl in the Woods is a different breed of inspiration, and Matis offers readers a unique set of lessons.