by Andrea Lani
Bison Books 2022; 298pp.; $20.41 (Paperback)Buy Book
Andrea Lani is passionate about many topics: motherhood, nature, and environmental degradation among them. Those passions have influenced her writing, resulting in her debut memoir, Uphill Both Ways: Hiking Toward Happiness on the Colorado Trail, which was released earlier this year from the University of Nebraska Press. In the book, Lani interweaves her search for personal happiness with investigation of her family history and honest discussion of modern parenting—all while tackling a 500-mile backpacking trip. Catherine Newman, author of Catastrophic Happiness, wrote of the memoir, “This lovely book manages to be a geological drama, an environmental history, a trail memoir, and a case for the protection of wild places—all while musing brilliantly on what it means to be a wife, a mother, and a person in the world”; she compared the writing to a combination of Kelly Corrigan, Cheryl Strayed, and Terry Tempest Williams.
Uphill Both Ways is Lani’s first book, but she has published essays, short stories, book reviews, and author profiles across a number of publications, including About Place Journal, Brain, Child Magazine, Literary Mama, Orion, Saltfront, Snowy Egret, and The Maine Review. In 2018, her essay, “The Sparrow’s Song,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she’s contributed to the This Side of the Divide anthology. Lani also serves as senior editor and editor of the Literary Reflections department here at Literary Mama. On the nature side of things, Lani shares her interests and enthusiasm as a Maine Master Naturalist and member of the Maine Master Naturalist Program board of directors. She also leads workshops on nature journaling and writing in various venues in Maine.
Senior editor Christina Consolino interviewed Lani about confronting her fears, overcoming self-doubt, and managing motherhood.
Christina Consolino: Uphill Both Ways is a memoir and a travel book, but it also digs into family history and history surrounding the trail itself, and it includes nature illustrations. What was your writing and revision process like, and how did you decide what to include and exclude, both for the text and the illustrations?
Andrea Lani: I journaled every night on the trail, and when I returned home, I typed up those journal notes, changing the tense and adding remembered details as I went. I then printed out those notes and started typing again, shaping the narrative and researching the environmental issues as I came to them. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to delve into the history of the landscape and the ways that humans have used and abused the land in the West. The issues I focused on arose organically from the landscape we walked through. In earlier drafts, those sections were a lot longer, and I had to trim them so I wouldn’t tire out the reader with the minute details of environmental policymaking that I find fascinating, but which may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I was surprised that my family history found its way into the book, but images of my grandmothers popped into my head so often they had to become a part of the narrative.
For the illustrations, I wanted to focus on the small details, like wildflowers and insects, that are easy to overlook in a landscape of such vast grandeur. I was able to include 16 illustrations, and I chose my favorites—both in terms of the living thing and my rendering of it. One of my very favorite wildflowers, because it is so peculiar, beautiful, and enchanting, is elephant’s-head lousewort, which is kind of an orchid-like plant with these little pink flowers growing up the stem, and each of them literally looks like a tiny pink elephant’s head, complete with forehead, ears, and trunk. The first time I came across one on the journey is a touchstone moment because seeing these delightful flowers, which I hadn’t seen in a long time since they don’t grow in Maine, made me smile, and the effort of smiling made me realize my smile muscles were out of shape because I’d been so unhappy for so long. So that was an important flower, on the hike, in my life, and in the story, and I’m really proud of how that drawing turned out. I included two butterfly drawings. One of the worn-out, tattered white admiral I saw on the last day of our hike, because butterflies and metamorphosis became an important metaphor. (I know that sounds cliché, but they kept showing up, and after a while, I couldn’t deny their significance.) And I included a drawing of a blue pleasing fungus beetle because it has the best name ever.
CC: In Chapter 1, you quote the aphorism, “A journey of 500 miles begins with a single step.” What would you consider that first single step in the overall journey: the decision to go on the trip or the first step onto the trail? How enormous did that step feel to you?
AL: I think the first step was the moment the idea came to me, about two and a half years before we started hiking. I was finishing up my MFA in creative writing, and I had this pile of short stories about, as one of my mentors put it, “harried mothers,” that were getting no traction in publishing. I was still working this terrible job that graduate school had provided a temporary distraction from. My oldest child was 12 years old and my twins were 8, that in-between phase when everything is constant negotiation and there’s very little of the sweetness that makes early years bearable. It was winter in Maine, a cold, dark, existential time of year. I looked back over my adult life, trying to figure out how I’d gotten to such a dead end, and I realized that the last time I’d made a deliberate decision and followed through on it, rather than being swept along by circumstances, was right after college, when I coaxed my husband (who was then my new, long-distance boyfriend) to hike the Colorado Trail with me. Going back and re-hiking the trail, as a family, exactly 20 years after hiking it the first time, seemed like both a way to reclaim agency over my life and a great book idea. Making that decision was a tiny step compared to the monumental effort it took to make the trip come about, let alone the actual hiking, but it was a life-changing moment.
CC: Many of us can relate to the clash of motherhood and career and the fact that you worked part-time, “trying to be everything to everyone.” With this journey on the Colorado Trail, you “hit pause” on your life to reset it and its priorities. Not everyone is going to be up to the challenge of something so drastic, though, so how can we, in our daily lives, hit pause?
AL: When I was on the trail, I was really hoping to find answers to this question—basically how to be happy in my normal life. I came away with a few different strategies. One, slow down. The rushing around we do as moms and our culture of busy-ness, where it’s a competition to see whose to-do list is longest, are recipes for unhappiness. Cut out unnecessary activities, leave early, get more sleep. Two, spend time with your kids in an unstructured way. Go for a walk in the woods, play a game, read a book out loud, even if they’re too old for it. Three, spend time in nature. Many studies show that time in wild, green spaces is good for our physical and mental health. Give yourself a little forest therapy (what my kids called “forced therapy” when I’d drag them outside during the pandemic) by walking or sitting quietly in a park or greenway or garden with no agenda.
CC: Kudos to you for doing something for yourself! You had a note pinned to your desk that read “CT by 43” and planned on finishing up the Colorado Trail (CT) on your 43rd birthday. You followed a dream and attained it. And then you wrote and published a book about it! Two monumental tasks, both full of opportunities for self-doubt. Do you now feel as though you can accomplish anything?
AL: Thank you! And I wish! Self-doubt is always the uninvited guest at the party, isn’t it? I have ideas for other books, and other adventures, but I feel a bit like my narrator at the beginning of Chapter 1, fidgeting with my pack, taking unnecessary trips to the bathroom, doing anything to avoid taking that first step onto the trail and climbing up the mountain because I know it will be hard work, and honestly, most days I’d rather watch a show or read a book than do the work. Currently, I’m obsessed with Jane the Virgin. I love the juxtaposition of melodramatic and over-the-top plot elements contrasted with meaningful emotional connections. I love the realism of Jane’s development as a writer, and the disappointments she encounters. I love the representation of relationships between mothers and daughters and women friends and frenemies. And though, like most kids on TV, Jane’s son doesn’t inconvenience her too much, I love that she faces genuine parenting challenges. I’ve had to start rationing the episodes so I don’t get to the end too fast.
CC: As both an artist and a writer, do you have other projects in the works?
AL: I have a book of essays about motherhood and nature almost ready to go. I want to illustrate it, but I’ve been stalling (that old self-doubt again!). I also plan to write a book about women writers who have combined themes of motherhood and nature in their work. And I want to head back to Colorado and write a book about the Platte River, again incorporating travel, natural and environmental history, and family history, like in Uphill Both Ways.
CC: Early on in the book, you mention that you forgot your favorite orange hat. Though you bought one to wear, you hated it, which for some, might have been a deal-breaker. Do you think it would have been a different trip if you’d had it with you?
AL: Forgetting that hat really set the tone for the start of the trip for me—frustration and irritation—and it was one in a series of events where I was so focused on getting everyone else’s stuff together, taking care of everyone else’s needs, that I forgot something important to me. This was thematic to both the book and my life, and something I’m sure many mothers can relate to. When I did finally find a replacement hat I liked—toward the end of the hike—I ended up getting bad sunburn blisters on my ears, which hadn’t been exposed to the sun with the hat I hated. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
CC: Motherhood forces us to confront our fears, some we never knew we had. And here, on this trail, you had to contend with your fears of “snakes, bears, falls, and lightning” as well as other fears, such as whether the water purification device worked. What did you learn about fears and facing them?
AL: Since we hiked the trail, I’ve taught three teenage boys how to drive, so I’ve had to face a lot of fear. Seriously, though, we live in an age of high anxiety—the pandemic that won’t end, creeping fascism, climate chaos, the reawakening of the specter of nuclear annihilation. On the trail, we found ourselves in a few situations where we were in an exposed area when a thunderstorm hit, and that was scary. But then the storm passed, and we could move on. There were a few times when I was concerned that my kids might have gotten lost because the trails were confusing and I hadn’t seen them in a long while. But every time they were on the right trail, just really far ahead, and I learned to trust their abilities and levelheadedness. But I don’t think anything I experienced hiking could prepare me for, or show me what to do with, the constant, low-level worry that the modern world engenders.
CC: Throughout the book, we get a great sense for what your family thinks about the experience, and at the end you share your oldest son Milo’s viewpoint: “Hiking the trail is a lot better in retrospect than it was when it was happening.” Do you think your sons will hike the trail when they get older? What do you hope they gained from this experience?
AL: I can see my oldest son hiking a long trail at some point—he’s gone on backpacking trips at college and has talked about hiking the Appalachian Trail—but I’m afraid he’ll get a real job too soon and won’t get the chance. The twins are still at an age where they’re opposed to their parents’ (especially Mom’s) interests, so I’ll wait and see with them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they find their way to outdoor adventures in the future. What I hope they gained from the experience is a love for the natural world, the belief that they can do hard things and overcome challenges, and a close bond with each other.
CC: Your whole Colorado Trail journey is such an apt metaphor for motherhood. What are your tips for surviving both?
AL: I experienced this moment about two-thirds of the way through our hike, when we’d passed through a mountain range and had another one ahead of us. The mountains to come looked like this impenetrable wall, but when I looked back at the mountains we’d just traversed, they looked every bit as impenetrable as the one before us. Yet there was a way through. That’s my tip for surviving both hiking and motherhood: know that no matter how hard or high or rocky the way ahead appears, there’s always a way through.