Hiking to Heal: A Review of "Girl in the Woods"

In 2008, on her second night in college, Aspen Matis was raped. Left broken, confused and unheard by her family, friends and school, Matis decided to drop out of university four weeks before the end of her freshman year. After rereading the memoir Travels in Alaska by John Muir, Matis knew she needed to go out into the wilderness so that she could heal. She set out to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) alone, for five months, when she was nineteen years old. The PCT is one continuous trail that spans 2,650 miles and snakes up from the border of Mexico and continues through California, Oregon and Washington to the border of Canada.

Courtesy: PTCA

Girl in the Woods is a stunningly crafted memoir which takes the reader from tragedy to triumph and from crippling dependence and submission to the quintessence of autonomy. Matis, with astonishing clarity of memory, recounts her five months along the PCT, riddled with bouts of complete isolation, days of near death from dehydration, starvation and disease and the constant battle to confront the reality of her rape and to overcome the shame it cultivated inside her.

The book beautifully presents its readers with the complexity of tragedy and healing; how healing doesn’t have a stopping point and tragedy is never fully erased, but that these two things can be a way of pushing ourselves beyond what we think is possible. 

Courtesy: RAINN

Matis’ voice permeates every page and her descriptions of the landscapes around her are vivid and poetic. By the book’s end, one feels as if they just walked along the finish line with her, hand-in-hand as long-time friends. Her evaluations of herself, her family and her fellow hikers are honest and intricate. Matis gives readers a mosaic of characters who are dynamic and flawed, but also depicts the importance of the community, friendship and random acts of kindness she received from those around her.

Matis does not shy away from discussing the debilitating effect that her rape had on her mentally and physically. In the months following her assault, Matis depicts a cycle of self-abuse and depression that is, at times, difficult to take in. Matis’ describes how helpful writing was in her healing process, but most importantly, how speaking out has made the biggest difference. Matis does, however, make it clear that her walk was about so much more than confronting her rape; it was about gaining a sense of self-sufficiency and strength, and ultimately redefining her image of herself.

With rape culture so prevalent in our modern society, especially within our system of higher education, this insightful and eloquent book should be nothing less than a required reading. If you or anyone you know is a victim of sexual assault, please make use of the resources below:

FSU Victim Advocate Program:

Phone: 850-644-1234

Website: dos.fsu.edu/vap

FSU Counseling Center:

Phone: 850-644-2003

Website: counseling.fsu.edu

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)

Phone: 1-800-656-4673

Website: rainn.org