Q&A

Aspen Matis on walking the Pacific Crest Trail, 'Wild' and Lena Dunham

There’s a new book out about a young woman who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of personal trauma.

If this story sounds familiar to you, remember that Cheryl Strayed wrote about her own journey on the trail as a twentysomething in her 2012 memoir, “Wild,” which went on to become an Oprah’s Book Club pick and a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon.

But Aspen Matis, 25, ventured onto the 2,650-mile path from Mexico to Canada in 2009 — well before the publication of Strayed’s book.

On her second night as a freshman at Colorado College, Matis was raped. She was so traumatized, that she dropped out of school and sought healing in the wilderness. “Girl in the Woods,” the story of her five-month Pacific Crest Trail trek, was published last week by Harper Collins’ William Morrow imprint.

But getting literary agents to view the book as anything more than “Wild” 2.0 was a challenge.

Matis will appear for a conversation at Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

What was your reaction when you found out about “Wild”?

My initial reaction was, like, “What the heck?”

I had a Modern Love column coming out about my experience in the New York Times six weeks after “Wild” was published. I’d been writing about my experience since 2011 in a writing class at the New School. But then I read [“Wild”], and it’s an entirely different book — and it’s a beautiful book. She has wisdom. She’s in her 40s.

My book is more like — let me capture the state of confusion I’m going through. Hers is a book about grieving the loss of your mother — the shocking, white-noise aftermath of love lost. Mine is a story about learning to love yourself by discovering your place in the world.

I imagine the success of “Wild” made your book a trickier sell, though.

It was polarizing. One reaction was: “You’ll never sell your book.” I had an agent say, “Just quit now. Sorry, you were scooped.” And I was shattered. I curled up on the floor. But then other people would say, “This is the perfect climate for your story. The rape conversation is just mounting, and the PCT is this newly popular mythic path. And you’ll be affiliated with ‘Wild,’ which is this new bestseller.”

And Strayed ended up giving you a positive blurb on your book.

As soon as I met Cheryl Strayed, she couldn't have been kinder — in this way that transcends everything I could have ever imagined. She has absolutely nothing to gain from helping a new writer who could just live in the shadows of her. But instead, she’s pulling me up into my own light.

Lena Dunham also gives you praise on your cover.

Lena actually wrote to me telling me that my Modern Love column had emboldened her to tell the story of her rape in her book. She thanked me for helping her reexamine what happened to her in college.

I asked my rapist to sleep over after he raped me. I was trying to retroactively correct what happened because to say you’ve been raped is to acknowledge your life is forever different. But you know in your body what has happened. It’s too huge a secret to hold inside yourself. Calling it a rape takes the shame out of you.

Your story differs from Strayed’s in many ways — down to what you carried on the hike. She brought way too much stuff, and you only carried an 11-pound knapsack with you.

There’s a huge misconception that as a thru-hiker, it’s better to carry more. But you hurt your back. You can lose all your toenails. I had so many more resources than Cheryl did. I had the Water Report — a daily updated report telling me where to find something to drink. I had GPS!

And yet with so few things with you, you never seemed especially worried about the elements.

I had this mentality: “When the hiker abides, the trail provides.” And it really does. You’re not going to be attacked by wild snakes. Black bears are afraid of you. I grew up backpacking in the summer with my family feeling incredibly safe. My mom once pet a bison. She told me that drinking champagne with a stranger was a thing to fear, which ended up being right.

You ended up falling in love on the trail with a guy named Dash — and after the hike, you wed. Your book ends on this positive note, but you’ve since revealed that Dash walked out of your apartment one day and never returned. What happened?

He went to our friend’s funeral and never came back. It took us 43 days to locate him. I feared he had killed himself. But he was living in this country town in Colorado. And we never talked again.  

Wow. So you were born Deborah Parker, and on the trail changed your name to Aspen Matis. Matis is Dash’s last name. Will you keep it?

Yes. I keep it because I love it. My name is his legacy. He marked me in great ways, boosted me up and helped me forward.

In the wake of “Wild” and now your book, I’m sure foot traffic on the PCT will increase even more. To find yourself, do you think it’s necessary to take such a major trip?

You don’t find yourself at a bar at 2 o’clock in the morning, surrounded by friends. That’s where you go to sedate yourself. But walking from Mexico to Canada doesn’t magically solve anything, either.

The trail is not a destination. It’s simply time with yourself. For me, that time gave me the opportunity to think clearly through my thoughts — unfiltered and redirected by the thoughts of everyone else.

Don’t try to muffle that voice. We always wish something could solve our problems for us, but we have to solve our problems directly — be it through hiking, writing, therapy or even good conversation with honest friends.

Follow @AmyKinLA for Hollywood news

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°