Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis is an exhilarating true-life adventure of hiking from Mexico to Canada—a coming of age story, a survival story, and a triumphant story of overcoming emotional devastation.
“Beautiful and so wildly engaging.”
— Lena Dunham
"Mercy. I love this story."
— Cheryl Strayed, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Wild
On her second night of college, Aspen was raped by a fellow student. Overprotected by her parents who discouraged her from telling of the attack, Aspen was confused and ashamed. Dealing with a problem that has sadly become all too common on college campuses around the country, she stumbled through her first semester—a challenging time made even harder by the coldness of her college's "conflict mediation" process. Today we're sharing a guest post from Aspen Matis, discussing what drew her to the Pacific Crest Trail. Find out more about Girl in the Woods.
I grew up in a book-loving family. My mother was a member of two very active book groups; my dad was a tremendous storyteller. When I was little, at bedtime, my mommy would read me Uncle Wiggly Longears, set in a fantastical world inside the woods—beautiful old, illustrated books with cloth covers. The forest was plagued by "bad chaps," outlandish beasts hungry for smaller creatures—but strong and mean as the bad chaps were, frail old Uncle Wiggily would escape them. These storybooks triggered thrilling visions of woodland playlands, I loved them. Story-time was formative. The discovery and discussion of books has changed the path of my life—twice:
When I was seventeen, reading an old brittle, browning book I’d found in my parents garage, I discovered a footpath called the Pacific Crest Trail.
The paperback was Travels in Alaska, the little-read last thing John Muir ever wrote, published posthumously in 1915. It was both essay-meets-environmentalism-meets-poetry and a memoir of sorts. It exalted beauty and showed me where to see it: in icicles that shatter sunlight into honeyed kaleidoscopes on a spot of snow-blanked ground; in the vein-ridged wing of a common moth. Through this book, I found the Pacific Crest Trail—a great path that extends from Mexico to Canada.
I decided I had to walk it.
Travels in Alaska gave me permission to derail my life and leave the Garden City— first for Alaska, then to walk the height of America, alone, when I was still a teen.
Halfway through my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, at a small post office somewhere in the pinewoods of Northern California, I picked up a package from my mother containing the only book I requested: The Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie, an author I had long admired. I was excited. For so long forced myself into maddening monkish silence, I was breaking it.
My favorite story in the collection was “Galatea” by Karen Brown, a tale about a girl who studied at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She married a hermit who lived in the town but didn’t go to the school and didn’t work, though he called himself an inventor. Each time I read the story, I wanted things to work out, for their weird intense hermit love to last forever. But it didn’t. They ended. One day the husband disappeared into woods, didn’t come back. I reread and reread and reread the ending, always in denial. I hoped to find the mistake she had made that caused him to leave, to see how they could have saved their marriage.
Two-thousand trail-miles north of the Mexico Border, in the verdant mountain-town of Bend, Oregon, I met a man named Dash who was also walking from Mexico to Canada. For the past three months, we’d been within a few days’ walk of each other, trekking northward in near-perfect sync. We quickly fell deeply for each other. Soon, he was also reading Rushdie’s chosen stories. I learned that Dash had gone to Cornell also. I told Dash how beautiful I thought it was how much the storied woman loved her husband. She gave him her whole life. Discussing the book I’d requested, Dash and I bonded.
We reached the trail’s end together, crossing a border in the pines. The next summer, we would return to the Pacific Northwest, reenter the Cascade Mountains, and we’d marry.
On November 3, 2013, Dash disappeared. After 43 days of not knowing where he was or if he was coming back, he sent me a two-line email telling me to send some of his things to Colorado.
I eventually learned he had returned to the woods, to walk from Mexico to Canada again. I remained in our New York City apartment, writing my own book, our story — Girl in the Woods.