Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis

girl-in-the-woodsGirl in the Woods is Aspen Matis’s 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. 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. Her desperation growing, she made a bold decision: She would seek healing in the freedom of the wild, on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail leading from Mexico to Canada.

In this inspiring memoir, Aspen chronicles her journey, a five-month trek that was ambitious, dangerous, and transformative. A nineteen-year-old girl alone and lost, she conquered desolate mountain passes and met rattlesnakes, bears, and fellow desert pilgrims. Exhausted after each thirty-mile day, at times on the verge of starvation, Aspen was forced to confront her numbness, coming to terms with the sexual assault and her parents’ disappointing reaction. On the trail and on her own, she found that survival is predicated on persistent self-reliance. She found her strength. After a thousand miles of solitude, she found a man who helped her learn to love and trust again—and heal.”

Being an amateur hiker, it’s not that big of a stretch for me to enjoy reading hiking memoirs.  My introduction to the genre was Bill Bryson’s excellent A Walk in the Woods, which set the bar pretty high in my mind.  In the following years, I found other great memoirs like Suzanne Roberts’s Almost Somewhere and Barbara Egbert’s Zero Days.  Most people, when you ask them to name a hiking memoir, will mention Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which was a decent book, if a bit overly heavy on the internal drama for my taste.  Of course, every memoir has its own focus, but I’ve found that the ones that work the best, in my opinion, have a good mix of the details of the hike itself, as well as the hiker’s inner experience.

I might have been more forgiving of this book had it come out before Wild, but since it didn’t, there’s no way to avoid comparisons with Strayed’s book.  And for me, this book suffers in the comparison to both Wild and just about every other hiking memoir I’ve read.  This book is heavy on the drama, heavy on the internal maundering indulged in by Matis, heavy on the seemingly stubborn refusal to learn anything from the constant inner turmoil.

I find it hard to criticize the author’s writing in this manner.  She was a rape victim, and everybody heals from such an experience at their own pace and in their own way.  I simply want to note that while I admire Matis’s openness about her thoughts and experiences, she doesn’t write herself in such a way as to get readers to empathize with her.  Perhaps a different approach, or a different form of editing, would have brought these elements across to the reader more skilfully.

I also felt that, with regards to many things in this book (but not the rape), the author’s credibility is in question.  Here’s what I mean: throughout this book, Matis talks about the mistakes she makes on the trail and the times that she nearly got into serious trouble due to lack of water, lack of food, or lack of navigation skills; however, she also claims to have walked the John Muir Trail on her own a year or two before this hike.  The JMT is one of the most remote trail sections in the High Sierras, and the author apparently walked it without incident.  She would also have us believe that she had previously walked 1000 miles on the PCT, also without incident.  Yet, at the time of this memoir, she had no more skills than an absolute beginner, and no ability to judge how much food and water she would need for the High Sierras.  I find it hard to believe that someone who had supposedly never dressed themselves before could successfully hike a thousand miles of wilderness.

On a technical level, this book again needed a stronger editor.  I’m sure it was a stylistic choice, but the constant use of strings of clauses joined by commas got on my nerves.  Because they were so clunky, they would often pull me out of the narrative because I’d be trying to parse out exactly what the author was saying.

As far as I’m concerned, this is neither a good hiking memoir, nor is it a good example to give to young women considering going into the wilderness.  Stick with Suzanne Roberts–she’s a much better role model.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from

Born to Walk by Dan Rubinstein

born-to-walk“The humble act of putting one foot in front of the other transcends age, geography, culture, and class, and is one of the most economical and environmentally responsible modes of transit. Yet with our modern fixation on speed, this healthy pedestrian activity has been largely left behind.

At a personal and professional crossroads, writer, editor, and obsessive walker Dan Rubinstein travelled throughout the U.S., U.K., and Canada to walk with people who saw the act not only as a form of transportation and recreation, but also as a path to a better world. There are no magic-bullet solutions to modern epidemics like obesity, anxiety, alienation, and climate change. But what if there is a simple way to take a step in the right direction? Combining fascinating reportage, eye-opening research, and Rubinstein’s own discoveries, Born to Walk explores how far this ancient habit can take us, how much repair is within range, and guarantees that you’ll never again take walking for granted.”

Boy, I wish this book would have been more anecdotal.  Rubinstein tackles a subject near and dear to my heart–walking for exercise, and specifically walking wherever you can and not just on long-distance treks–but he does so in a way guaranteed to put off most readers.  He does include stories of his own walking experiences, but it’s the organization of the book that buries them beneath mountains of data.

The Good: There are some truly thought-provoking ideas in this book.  My favorite came from an interview with someone the author met.  The theory she put forth is that the reason video games are harmful is not just because of how they keep kids from exercising, but because of how they impact problem solving.  Kids playing games are interacting with a created world–one with a definite order–and they know the solutions to their problems are there if they look hard enough (or go online to find cheats).  Because all kids playing the game encounter the same problems with the same solutions, they’re losing mental flexibility.  That idea had me thinking for a good little bit.

I also liked that Rubinstein attempted to link walking to many different areas of life.  The chapter titles are things like “Society”, “Spirit”, and “Family”.  It keeps the book from being too focused on any one aspect of our daily lives that can benefit from more walking.

The Bad: Unfortunately, the book has no real flow or continuity to it.  The author will start a story, and then jump to tons of scientific data meted out by people with long titles and lists of accomplishments.  Then he jumps into a different story from a previous chapter, then more data, then back to the original story.  I found myself skimming the text at times, because the long litanies of percentages and data sets could easily have been pared down to their most salient points.

The Ugly: This is a man who is fond of sentence fragments.  I’m pretty sure he was trying a stylistic choice to drive home certain points, but all it did for me was to underscore the faults in the writing.  Also, those moments when he mentions a new person and then lists everything they’re involved in gave some sentences the feeling of run-ons when they really weren’t.  Or, at least, I think they weren’t… I lost track in the middle of a few of them.

What this boils down to is simple: What we have here is a book with a good premise and some interesting ideas that is bogged down by poor choices in structure and style.  I think it was worth the effort to wade through, but this book is likely to be a difficult read for most people, including myself.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&