Two Tales of the Woods

Monday, March 20, 2017

Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, Suzanne Roberts, 2012
Girl in the Woods: A Memoir, Aspen Matis, 2015

A few years back, I read an intriguing excerpt from a book that was just then coming out, a memoir about a woman hiking alone. I picked it up from the New York Public Library, almost on a whim, and adored it.

That book was Wild by Cheryl Strayed and at this point, I've read it twice and seen the movie. It lead me to occasionally seek out other memoirs on similar themes, although until now, I haven't written about any of them here.

Neither of these books was as brilliant as Wild, but they were both good. Both have themes of female empowerment and the grounded, centered feeling that can come from self-reliance in the wilderness.

Almost Somewhere is the simpler and less emotionally impactful of the two. It is based on the diary and memory of the author, who hiked the John Muir Trail with two friends after college. The three young women begin the journey not quite at odds, but not as equals. After they shed some male hangers-on, the author describes her personal journey - she begins to realize how much useless energy she was spending competing with other women and seeking male attention.

Girl in the Woods is a much more personal and emotional story. The author was raped in college and treated callously by the officials who should have protected her. This leads her to other self-destructive behaviors and finally, she drops out of school. She hikes the entire Pacific Crest Trail alone to reconnect with her body and her self - to overcome a lifetime of extremely dysfunctional behavior from her parents and heal her spirit. She is ill-prepared and faces starvation and injury, but finds the wholeness and self-forgiveness she needs.

Both authors were inspired heavily by the writing of John Muir and his descriptions of the Pacific wilderness. Both authors also address to some extent the unfairness of loving Muir's vision while being a woman - that although going alone into the wilderness to be one with the world is something both greatly desire, they each have to reconcile that with the danger posed, not by the wilderness, but by men.

Roberts talks about feeling most in danger on the edge of civilization and feeling a sense of relief after returning to the trail after being near towns and roads. Matis recounts sexual rumors spread about her by male hikers and the lies and half-truths she told about why she was hiking. She eventually finds one long-term relationship while on the trail.

A lot of the last part of her story concerns this relationship, but then it's left in a vague place, which is narratively unsatisfying. I was curious enough to google the author, and I found out that her marriage fell apart between when she sold the premise of the book to her publisher and when it was finished. I'm impressed that she was able to convey the beginning of this relationship so beautifully, given that fact, but it did mean that aspects of the ending felt a little odd.

Almost Somewhere: 3 Stars
Girl in the Woods: 4 Stars

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