After being raped on her second night at college, Aspen Matis went from being a student to being an alchemist of sorts—transforming herself from a victim into an empowered young woman impacting the lives of others.
In Girl In the Woods, Matis chronicles hiking alone along The Pacific Crest Trail, “a continuous footpath through the deserts, mountains and forests of the American West” that spans 2,650 miles. In anticipation of the paperback release of her memoir on June 15, Matis speaks with us about her harrowing and inspiring experiences as someone who has not merely survived, but gone on to thrive.
Lauren Jonik: After the devastation of the rape and of your school not taking your allegations seriously, you decided to set off on a journey of reclamation of self—body, mind and spirit. What was it about the Pacific Crest Trail that called to you?
Aspen Matis: The woods were an oasis in my childhood. In the summers, my family would go backpacking. Memories of childhood summers were beautiful: filled with granite mountains and swift clean rivers, my dad fishing to feed us. My mom would cook the fish, and it all amazed me; subsistence seemed a game we all played as a family. We were a little wild tribe. If we all did what we should, we would survive. It was terribly fun!
The Pacific Crest Trail runs from Mexico, all the way to Canada, without breaking. It was alluring, so romantic, to walk the whole height of the country. It was a path back to my childhood, the love. I was searching for my innocence, in this way.
LJ: During your trek, you faced many significant dangers like slipping through the ice in a snowfield and losing your right shoe—which could have been catastrophic. What helped you to maintain the presence of mind to overcome the obstacles you encountered? Was there ever a moment when you questioned if or how you were going to survive?
AM: There were a handful of times when I let myself think about death. Once, in the desert, I ran out of water. It was hot, dry heat, and eventually I felt my eyes drying. It became painful to blink. I remember I pictured my mother learning a hiker had discovered my body, dark from the sun. I could imagine her at my funeral. Then I stopped indulging fear and snapped out of panicked wallowing—and searched so hard. And eventually I did find a source of water. It was always in action, not in thought, that I saved myself.
LJ: You write that you “wanted to come close to fierce wild things.” How did your relationship to nature change when you were in the wilderness alone for an extended period of time? Did it impact your perspectives about life itself?
AM: I don’t know if hiking alone in the desert and forests and mountains for months on end changed my perspective on the desert and forests and mountains, as surprising as that might sound! My perspective on wilderness has always been one of awe. Wilderness is beautiful and gigantic—I’m so teeny! That’s how I feel: small, and lucky to be alive here. In the woods I feel special and lucky.
In terms of my perspective on the universe, and my place in it, and how it all works, I can’t say it better than the philosopher Alan Watts: “But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” And John Muir, a naturalist whose thinking has lovely clarity: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Trees, rocks, storms, kisses from a lover—everything in the universe is made of the same material. We are all elements made from atoms, made of stardust. Everything is connected, and everything is really one thing. I think I came to the same simple understanding that many people before me who actively think about reality for a long time, in solitude, have come to: that a human life is impossibly small. The universe is very, very big, and our personal problems are tiny and petty. We can let them go, in order to live freely.
I learned: we have what we need; you already have what you’re looking for. You are everything already.
LJ: What did you learn about surviving in extreme climates and terrains that you didn’t realize before the hike?
AM: I learned that you have to take care of yourself proactively. Drink before you’re too thirsty to think, stay aware, pay attention to your map, stay aware of your resources, stay aware of your needs. Honor your needs. Sleep when you’re tired and eat when you’re hungry and treat yourself with great care and great love. Surviving in extreme climates requires the same skills as does thriving, in all climates.
LJ: Your journey was made easier by “trail magic.” How did these little gifts left by strangers along the way—often in the middle of nowhere—impact you physically and emotionally?
AM: These sweet presents made me feel supported on my journey, even loved. They were a collective benevolent hand, guiding me forward, mentally uplifting us hikers. It’s difficult to quit when you feel like you’re receiving secret gifts from unknown people who are kind to you and believe that the crazy journey you’re embarking on has value. Trail magic was extremely life-affirming, and I am grateful for it. Every incident of magic showed me that when you’re walking through deserts that should give no refuge, the road will provide, so long as you keep stepping. An unexpected peach could propel me 100 dusty miles.
LJ: You met Dash, your future husband, towards the end of the journey. You’ve spoken publicly about your marriage and later, divorce after Dash disappeared. How did that relationship help to move you through to a new kind of journey?
AM: Dash was incredibly encouraging of my writing—he believed that I could make a living as a writer before I truly believed it. He brought me to New York and held me the standard of fulfilling my dreams. It turned out, that standard was not impossible. But I may never have felt supported enough to leap and try without him.
LJ: How has having your story out in the world—first through your New York Times Modern Love essay and then, through the gorgeous memoir—changed your life?
AM: The parts of my book that triggered the very biggest responses were not my rape or my near-death struggle in the High Sierra mountains — or any other true trauma — but the moments that showed my irrational thinking and fear in the immediate aftermath of danger. Like how immediately after I was raped, I asked the boy who did it to please sleep over; in the months after, I felt such guilt and shame for making such a senseless request. I wish someone had told me: my desire to normalize a shocking trauma is actually such a rational reaction. It was my desperate attempt to brush off what had happened, because actually naming it what it is—rape—is to face something daunting and devastating. When I begged him to stay, I was wishing to retroactively correct his crime, as if I could.
I want other girls to tell their stories and be free of them.
LJ: Sexual assault often goes unreported, especially on college campuses. What do you think needs to be done to drive home the message that “rapists cause rape,” not anything that the victim wore, drank or said?
AM: We need to educate ignorant people, healing a sick culture. We need to hold colleges and the military and all the old institutions accountable—by telling the actual stories with honesty and courage, thus requesting the transparency of these dark, long-hidden “justice” systems. We must request justice and can not stand for its obstruction. We are parts of something new but also fundamental, a long-overdue revision of a backward system—the most important and humane progress following in the footsteps of all great thinkers fighting for rationality, compassion, and the (basic!) respect of humanity—the human mind and also human body.
We are part of a blossoming movement, fresh in this country, opening the world’s hearts—brave. We’re leading the frightened simply by speaking the truth. We are only at the beginning, which is a thrilling place to be.
LJ: If given the gift of hindsight, what advice would you give your 18 year old self?
- This too shall pass! Don’t numb yourself with drugs. No amount of food will fill you. Stay sober, feel everything, even piercing pain, regret, shame, locate in yourself your sorrow’s source, listen to it, listen to it. Soon you’ll answer it. What pains you now will fuel you, soon.
- Tell your story—it will help someone. Helping other people will also help you heal. Silence has the rusty taste of shame, and your writing is a way to take the worst horror in your life and transform it into something beautiful.
- You can do anything you set your mind to. Write your book. Walk from Mexico to Canada. Leave the school you hate, the abusive relationship that’s stifling you; blossom. You absolutely can. You are strong enough. And at the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assist you. Commit to work you love, living your first-choice life. You will alight with bright fire: pride in yourself. Anyone will become beautiful if they’re doing what they love.
- Trust yourself, you are strong enough to do anything. The limits that will stop you are the limits you declare are true for yourself. You have what you need. We already have what we are looking for.
- Let yourself enjoy the exertion and the challenge! Don’t swap one escape for another (don’t sedate yourself with alcohol). Don’t be too serious when the situation is not truly serious—never get mad at yourself for anything you wouldn’t be mad at a friend for. Generally, always be very kind to yourself.
Also — be kind.
Learn more: http://aspen-matis.com/
Purchase Girl In the Woods.
Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in 12th Street, The Manifest-Station, Two Cities Review, Artemis, The Oleander Review, Calliope, Bustle and Ravishly. She currently is at work on a memoir about coming of age with a chronic illness. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenjonik