Finding my centre and planning to hike the East Coast Trail

Taking inspiration from a novel of one woman's 4,286-kilometre journey, Julia Cook is heading out on the East Coast Trail this summer.
Julia Cook will be hiking the East Coast Trail this summer, after reading a novel of a woman's cross-U.S. hike. (Julia Cook/CBC)

I recently reached author Aspen Matis over the phone in New York City for an interview I waited more than a week to do.

"There's a great line: you find the mentor that you're ready for," says Matis. "But no one else can save you. You have to save yourself and you have to want to be saved."

While I try not to gush, it's hard when it was her novel that changed my life.

But I didn't know that when I picked it off the shelf at Shopper's Drug Mart.

Girl in the Woods: A Memoir it read on the cover. I felt a kinship with the title because I, too, was a girl in the woods.

Aspen Matis hiked more than 4,000 kilometres across the U.S., from the Mexican border to Canada, along the Pacific Crest Trail.

I'd spent most of my childhood collecting plants behind my house, or wielding broken hockey sticks to attack ferns with my brothers, pretending they were evil villains.

As I got older, I used the outdoors as a form of therapy. And last fall I found myself escaping into the forest more often; after being dealt some rough blows, I needed to be alone.

"I think hiking can be helpful in so many ways, any time in your life when you're searching for the clarity of your own thought without the noise," said Matis.

Her novel tells the story of the 4,286-kilometre hike she took along the Pacific Crest Trail, after being raped on her second day of college. The hike helped her come to terms with the assault and make her a better person.

"Realizing that I was strong enough to take care of myself, not just in this world, but in harsh, hostile environments. And that I could survive all of this," said Matis.

"I was enough, like I'm strong enough to not only live through it, but to thrive through it."

I finished the book in a night.

My own journey

Julia Cook says when she hikes, she becomes the person she wants to be. (Julia Cook/CBC)

It's hard to describe the feeling you get when a book echoes your inner thoughts. It's not that I believe that I can hike away my problems, but it does help me find a centre when I've lost my balance.

"It is time with yourself to identify the origin of those problems and create a map for yourself forward from the place the trail ends," said Matis.

After I put the book down, I knew I, too, needed to go on a long hike. I picked the shorter East Coast Trail because, sadly, I don't have six months to dedicate to an adventure. Plus, it's in my home province. 

But despite the fact the trail is relatively safe, some people aren't supportive of the trek, so I asked Matis what I should tell people who say I shouldn't do it.

"People's judgement of my life I always find reveal so much more about their insecurities and their fears than they do about me," said Matis.

"I got so exhausted trying to make other people feel safe with my decisions."

In her novel, Matis came to realize that while her parents are supportive, she had to prove that she could take care of herself and (pun intended) stand on her own two feet.

I do not feel that pressure from my own parents, but I do feel it from other people. I depend on others to tell me how I think about myself and what I'm worth.

But when I go on a hike, there's no one else there. I don't have to act how I think I should act, or change myself to please another person. I am infinitely more and infinitely less when I'm alone in the woods.

I become the person I want to be.

Exciting, daunting and exhausting

Julia Cook, on a hike out to the Silent Witness in Gander. (Julia Cook/CBC)

After finishing Aspen's story, I realized I wanted to hear other people's stories, too. That's why I'll be hiking with a tape recorder and interviewing people I meet on the trail.

"I think every person on planet earth is searching for something," said Matis.

"And they're taking this journey because they think it will be fun and exciting and beautiful, but also because they want time with themselves undistracted and uninfluenced."

Preparations for my hike have already started. It means extra cardio each week, studying maps and buying equipment. It's exciting, daunting and exhausting — and I'm hungry all the time.

But there's also a sense of pride when I tell myself what I'm going to do.

"At the beginning of my walk … I thought I had poor judgement because, why would I choose to be alone with this boy who was a rapist? And it taught me that all those ideas I had about myself were unfair to myself," said Matis.

"I am confident, I can take care of myself in this world and I am safe in this world … and I earned my own respect, I think."

I had been talking with Matis for half an hour at this point and it was time to let her go. Before we hung up, she said after hearing about the East Coast Trail she may hike it, too. I promise to introduce myself if we cross paths.

And if you see me this summer on the Avalon, make sure to say hello. Though, in my case, I'll be the woman in the woods, not a girl.

Happy trails.

Preparing for a summer hike on the East Coast Trail has been daunting, exhausting and exciting, says Julia Cook. (Julia Cook/CBC)

About the Author

Julia Cook


Julia Cook reports from CBC's bureau in Gander, primarily for the Central Morning Show.