Named an editor’s pick by O, The Oprah Magazine, Backpacker, and Barnes & Noble Review, Leigh Ann Henion’s New York Times best-selling book Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World is now available in paperback.


Leigh Ann Henion proves that it is possible and essential to be a wife and mother and still see the world. Her memoir opens with the birth of her son and her honest confession that she “cannot help but mourn the loss of something I can’t place. I have an inner emptiness — literal and figurative — that I’ve never felt before. It’s as though nourishing his life has built a new chamber in my body that is now cavernous and empty, waiting to be filled…I have never felt more alone.”

It is this voice — unflinching bare bone self-examination —that keeps me hooked through her pilgrimage in search of wonder. Three years before her son is born, Henion witnesses the monarch butterfly migration to Mexico on assignment for the Washington Post Magazine and realizes that she’s missing out on nature’s most spectacular shows. On her first trip after her son is born to see the bioluminescence bay of Puerto Rico, she learns that “nature has the power to completely disarm people.” In the lightning storms of Venezuela: “an admission of human frailty and the perfect magnificence of earth, the universe, time, in a way that removes the masks of humankind’s many religions to reveal their connectivity, the fact that we are — in the end — one.”

And if these revelations don’t strike a chord within, Henion introduces infrasound and indigenous ways of knowing on a burning volcano in Hawai’i. Beneath the Northern Lights of Sweden, Henion asks: “If I want to trust nature, to trust life, I can’t always be trying to control it. Haven’t I learned this by now? Isn’t this, like, a main rule of parenting? Will I ever really be able to just do the best I can and then just let go?”


On the great wildebeest migration in Tanzania, Henion realizes that if she were not having phenomenal experience after phenomenal experience, she would not be parenting her son in a way that awakens him to using plants, and landmarks, and symbols to make his way in the world. “If I were not being led by wonder, it is not the source from which I would teach.”

It is this parallel journey that Henion has with her son that lies at the core of this book. Henion says in an interview, “My son is seeing trees for the first time and discovering pine cones and rocks and everything was amazing. And I was seeing the solar eclipse, northern lights, and everything was new and amazing…and then we were able to come together and explore together with that sense of wonder.”


Henion ends her memoir with an unforgettable image of her son wrapped up in a blanket in her arms gazing up at the night sky and whispering something she learned on one of her trips, “We’re stardust.”

Not only does Henion place her readers in these visceral scenes of experiencing phenomena which she defines as “that which is amazing and that which is observable,” she also introduces us to shamans, indigenous leaders, reindeer herders, phenomenon chasers, people who are happily living what some call the “unconventional life.”

Henion writes in her introduction, “I had no idea there were lay people from all over the world, from all walks of life, already going to great lengths to undertake the sorts of phenomena chases I’d dreamed up. Some took odd jobs to stay under the northern lights. Others left white-collar positions to make time for swimming in glowing, bioluminescent bays. There were people who braved pirates to witness everlasting lightning storms, stood on volcanoes, stared into solar eclipses. They trusted their instincts, followed their passions, willfully shaped their days into the lives they most wanted to lead.”
Humphrey, a guide she meets in Tanzania, says this about his life: “I am free! I can go anywhere I want and look for things. I can move! There’s no stress — not that kind of stress when you are confined. I am never bored. To me, that’s what freedom means.”

A clinical psychologist named Kate, whom Henion meets in Australia, explains that eclipse chasers make choices that allow them to be in the right place at the right time. “I think people put restrictions on their lives. They perceive: I can’t do this because I don’t have the money. I can’t do this because of whatever…But if you’ve got that passion, if you’ve made that choice, it will happen.”

This is ultimately the gem I’ve uncovered rereading this book in times when I doubt the unconventional choices I’ve made in my life. Or worse, I miss out on the freedom that Humphrey speaks about when I decide not to do something because I think I can’t afford it or I’m worried about what other people think.
In particular, Henion bravely addresses what all of us mothers wrestle with: “does being a good mother mean devoting every drop of my being to my child, or does it mean being true to my spirit in a way that illustrates that there is more than one way to live a good life? Motherhood affects everything, but does it have to change everything about who I am and what I choose to pursue?”

As a travel writer and a soon-to-be mother of four kids, I berate myself with these questions all day long. It’s especially heart-wrenching, when well-meaning friends or family tell me that I shouldn’t do something because I’m a mother or that my decision to have so many kids means that I should always prioritize motherhood over my career. A Wisconsin Public Radio interviewer once said to Henion: “The script in our culture tends to have being a mother and being an explorer as mutually exclusive roles. You’re supposed to get your wandering and adventuring done before you have kids and then you’re supposed to nest and settle down.”

Critics have actually asked Henion how she could “abandon” her child or husband for a week, or whether she felt guilty about leaving her son “especially when he was just a baby, to go off on this wonder pilgrimage?” I, too, am asked these questions when I’m on assignment. It makes me wonder how often mothers are asked “what about the kids?” when they have to travel somewhere for work, and how often fathers are asked that question. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever asked my husband whether he feels guilty abandoning his wife and three kids when he’s out-of-town five days every week?

Here’s her graceful response, which I’ve posted on my wall: “I think a lot of people will look at this journey and think it’s self-indulgent. I had to wrestle with this. All my life I was told that women can do anything. When I became a mother, I felt like that suddenly changed. There seems to be a who-does-she-think-she is to just go chase an eclipse. When we talk about following a script, that doesn’t follow a script. When you’re a new mother and you go to a professional conference for a week, it doesn’t seem like people would talk about that how awful it is that she went to a conference. But if you swim in a bioluminescence bay in Puerto Rico, it seems somehow self-indulgent. It doesn’t follow a script of what you’re supposed to be doing of what’s acceptable. It’s interesting because it is actually my job as a travel writer. I’m on a work trip. That really gets to what it is that you want to do, that you think you can’t because it’s not what you’re supposed to do even though it’s what you feel called to do. When people read Phenomenal, that’s what I hope they will ask themselves.”

So tell me, what do you want to do that you think you’re not supposed to do?

And if traveling and exploring might be your answer, consider Henion’s suggestion to see the next total eclipse which will cross the entire country on August 21, 2017. She says, “The highest number of Americans in a century will be able to easily reach its path. This is something people go out on ocean liners or fly to tiny islands to see, and it’s going to be within driving distance for millions. A great resource is I saw a total eclipse in Australia. It’s a tremendous experience; you’re seeing the face of the sun. And to witness it with other people, you viscerally experience interconnectivity.”

Henion, Leigh Ann. Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World. Penguin, 2015.

Yes, that’s my toddler snowboarding. Extreme sports don’t have to stop when you have kids.

familysmallCross-posted from Washington Post

My husband and I believe our outdoor adventures should not be curtailed just because we are parents of three kids. The photos in our living room attest to the creative ways we’ve managed to fish in Alaska with a newborn or hike a glacier with our children, who were 2 and 5 years old, outfitted in crampons. Last year, our then 1-year-old even snowboarded at Snowshoe Mountain.

These are our parenting creds. However, to those who label me as an American-born Chinese and my husband as an American-born Korean coupled with the reminder that we are both products of tiger parenting, we are often judged. My dad would chide, “You are a straight A student. You went to Harvard. Don’t you want that for your kids?”

Sure, but I also have great respect for how the outdoors and extreme sports shaped my character. By the time I turned 20, my parents had taken me white water rafting, spelunking, hiking, and horseback riding through nearly all the national parks in the United States and Canada. This fueled a thirst post-college for snowboarding, snow-machining and ice climbing. When my dad passed out at the bottom of the 600-foot deep Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park and it was up to 9-year-old me to get help, when I thought I was going to die the first time I ice-climbed and found the strength to use my icepick for a self-arrest, these are the moments that I think of when someone (including myself) tells me I can’t do something.

While my husband did not grow up with outdoor or extreme sport experiences, he did find a passion in these things once he left home. He scuba-dived all over the world before we met and earned a fifth-degree black belt in Taekwondo. His father taught him that when you start something you have to finish it. This is what he tries to teach our kids, especially my eldest (10) who announced as soon as she could string together a sentence that she wanted to be a race car driver and an Olympic snowboarder.

Serving as Girl Scout and Cub Scout leaders, my husband and I can prove that kids who spend time outdoors eclipse their peers in environmental stewardship, more readily seek challenges, are better problem solvers and gain skills that will help them do better in school. In extreme sports, we find them happier, more passionate about their goals, more sure of who they are.

The key is introducing outdoor adventures and extreme sports early. We had to find outfitters who were willing to waive age-limits and find creative solutions like strapping adult instep crampons onto my 2-year-old. We found coaches like Chris Hargrave, president of Windells Academy who sprung my 1-year-old loose from Snowshoe’s pre-ski school and showed us how to attach an accessory to her board so we could tow her and she could discover the sensation of riding on her own. (My oldest, Kyra, wasn’t allowed on a board until age 5 due to age restrictions at the resorts we tried.) A father of three kids, Hargrave said, “If you put the things that you want your children to have access to later in life in their hands when they are babies, they will develop a balance and taste for it.”

Second, my husband is all about safety; he’s made a career out of it. (He’s the Regional Safetly Manager for a Fortune 500 company.) We go to places like Snowshoe in West Virginia, a family-friendly resort that offers Terrain Based Learning (TBL), an approach created by Hargrave using shaped snow to keep speed in check so students can have fun without the fear of losing control.

“If early lessons aren’t handled right with the young ones, they will turn against the sport quickly,” says Frank DeBerry, president of Showshoe whose daughter threw her first terrain park trick at the age of 7.

So we decided to send our risk-adverse son, then 6, to TBL and Snowshoe’s first snowboard camp, coached by Hargrave. We didn’t care if he never snowboarded again after the camp, we just wanted him to give it a try at the top of a mountain with the best conditions in the region.

On the first day, Ethan started on flat ground, learning to balance and jib, then moved to the mini-pipe feature (like a skate ramp made of snow) where he learned to pump and control pressure. Next, he pumped the rollers into a return wall, worked on going down the fall line with banked turns, and linked turns on a perfect slope. By the afternoon, he was shreddin’ the gnar on the greens.

On the second day, when a camp instructor asked who was a beginner, Ethan refused to raise his hand. I whispered in his ear, “But you’ve only snowboarded for one day.”

“Mooommm!” he shushed me. “I want to do tricks.”

On the third day, Ethan studied a steep runway leading to a nearly 15-foot jump in a terrain park. While airdogs flew by and showed off huge stunts, Ethan tried to blend into the scene by planting his hands in the snow, shifting all his body weight onto the tail of his board and lifting the nose into the air. With his head down in the tripod trick, Ethan contemplated whether he was going to drop in on the jump.

Decision made, Ethan stood up, took a few hops towards the jump, bent his knees and pointed his board straight down the ramp.

We were shocked. That jump was way beyond even my skill level and I had been snowboarding for 19 years.

Ethan’s bravery inspired me to give the jump a shot even though I crashed miserably. When I caught up to Ethan, he was whimpering on the steep landing. “My heart,” he cried. When I asked if he was okay, he said, “Mommy, you shouldn’t have tried the jump.” He kept telling me that the jump was too hard for me and that next time, he’ll show me how to do it. Before I could process this great transformation in my son, Hargrave yelled in my direction, “Kyra just did a 360!”

Though both of them had a few falls that weekend, they were hooked on snowboarding.

Now, all three of my kids practice tricks off their skateboard and on their snowboards. Their friends beg us to take them on our next adventure. Their backpacks are stuffed with books about climbing Everest or how to survive an avalanche.

As winter settles in, all of our dinner conversations are about when and where they get to ride. Ethan says he will never ski again. Kyra insists that I cook them healthy meals packed with protein since they both joined a Ski & Snowboard Racing Team at Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountain Resort.  This is a family commitment that will require a four hour drive every weekend until March, but we’re committed.

Whenever any of us are afraid to try something new, I direct them to our newest family photo hanging strategically next to the television. I remind them of this moment when they pushed their limits because these are the times that I see my children reach for greatness.

On the softest powder above the clouds at 4,848 feet, the five of us are on snowboards, yes even our toddler who just learned how to walk.

Leslie Hsu Oh is a freelance writer whose work has been named among the distinguished stories of the year by Best American Essays and is working on a memoir. Read more at and on Facebook or Twitter: @lesliehsuoh

The More You Give, the More You Get Back

Cross-posted from Today Parenting Team

In this season, I often remind my children of the important lessons we learned about giving and sharing when we lived in Alaska. In this photo, Kyra (5) and Ethan (2) are presenting their first harvest of petrushki (beach lovage) to Rita Blumenstein, a renowned traditional healer and member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Auntie Rita had spent Mother’s Day with us on the coast of Turnagain Arm, Alaska, where she taught my children not to take too much, so other people and animals can harvest too.

At Anchorage Museum’s Living Our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska exhibit, Elders and youth are interviewed among the Athabascan, Eyak, Haida, Iñupiaq, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Unangan, Sugpiaq, Yup’ik, and Saint Lawrence Island Yup’ik..

In the Yup’ik video, Alice Rearden (Cucuaq Aluskak) speaks about ella, or awareness. Growing up in Napakiak, her Elders taught her “that if you are out walking and see a piece of driftwood sticking out of the mud, you should pull it out and turn it over so that the muddy part can dry. That piece of wood is alive and aware, and it will feel gratitude for your kindness.”

Her features are delicate, but when she speaks, her voice is laced with the weight of more than 12 years of wisdom, gleaned from serving as lead translator for the Calista Elders Council. The video pans to a scene of fish hanging on a dry rack while Rearden says off screen: “We always grew up with that sense, of not putting yourself first or above others. Giving gifts to people, those kinds of, you know, unselfish gestures that you do for people—it will come back in turn.”

Yup’ik Elders explain that “those who are capable must help those less fortunate through sharing food and doing chores for them. We were admonished: ‘Even though an old woman wants to pay you, you do not receive it.’ When an elderly woman or man is given something or helped, she is extremely grateful and thanks you with enthusiasm. And they give the person who helped them something beneficial, thinking of something in their minds that will aid him positively in his life.

“Yup’ik discussions of the ethics of sharing describe its consequences in terms of its nonmaterial return—the grateful thoughts it elicits.…Today, sharing knowledge is as critical as sharing food in both the transfer and transformation of Yup’ik moral standards. Admonitions to act with compassion and restraint remain foundational not only in Yup’ik interpersonal interaction but in their relations with their environment.”


Living in Alaska, it seemed easier to teach my children about sharing. While dip-netting, we always collected fresh fish heads discarded on the beaches and delivered them to Elders whom I worked with in town. They helped me clean, pack, freeze, and ship salmon to relatives in the Lower 48. Now as they get older and we move further away from Alaska, I hear them yelling “mine” at each other and slipping into that urban self-centered way of thinking.

As a mother of three, Kyle (13), Kayla (11), and Christopher (4), Rearden trades ideas with me on how to teach our kids tuvqakiyaraq, the custom of sharing, in an urban setting. Rearden grew up “feeling shame to get more than someone else. Whenever I was asked to share, I always gave the other person a bigger piece. I would cut a candy in half and be ashamed to take the bigger piece.”

She raises her children, who were all born in Anchorage, with these ideas: “The more you give, the more you get back. If we are stingy, like if you don’t share your toys, then [they] will break right away. When you give, it will come back to you. Your selfless act is always rewarded. They see that I don’t hold back when it comes to helping in any situation. I hope they [her kids] watch me and observe what I do.”

Because it is hard to keep traditions like tuvqakiyaraq in the city, Rearden goes out of her way to share food. She often hosts feasts where she cooks all day, serving her most precious subsistence foods, making sure her kids see that she is serving her last bag of salmonberries. She says, “it’s just enough for them to see. I am always talking to them and explaining the reasons behind sharing, the reason why it’s important to give to others and have compassion for others.”

Here’s something simple that I try with my kids. I take an apple and cut it in two. I present both pieces to my oldest. Sometimes she will try to stuff them into her mouth before her two younger siblings notice. Sometimes, she’ll bargain with them. “Okay, I’ll give you this apple, if you give me that Xbox controller.”

Always, I’m patient. Using these opportunities as teaching moments, I’ll remind her of the lessons we learned in Alaska. Always, she’ll give away the larger piece or press both pieces into the little hands of her brother and sister.

Parts of this post are excerpted from my original publication in First Alaskans Magazine.

Interview with Leigh Newman

Cross posted from
When I first met Leigh Newman at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, I felt like I found my long lost sister. We are both raising our children in an urban setting (New York for her, Washington, D.C. for me) when we hope to pass on the values we learned in the wilderness. In Still Points North, out now in paperback from Shorefast Editions, Newman writes with tenderness about searching for identity and the difference between how to survive and knowing how to truly live. It was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle John Leonard Prize. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in One Story, Tin House, The New York Times Modern Love and Sunday Book Review, Fiction, Vogue, O The Oprah Magazine, Sunset, Real Simple and Bookforum. She currently serves as Books Editor of and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. 

The first time I read Still Points North, by the time I got near the end, I flipped through the last few pages impatient to find out whether this self-reliant/self-exiled travel writer would choose marriage or divorce. We are all dying to know if you are still married to Lawrence, for how long, how old are your kids, and what is his reaction to this book and comments readers have made about him? Does he come with you on book tours?
Wow! You’re right. I should included a follow-up insert. Yes, Law and I are still married. We have two kids, both boys. One is 9 and the other 5. As for Lawrence’s reaction to the book: he loves the reader comments; he comes off great!
At the end of your book, you drop teasers like “mugged at knifepoint by a transvestite (long story, another book)….drifting until you end up on camelback at the border of Libya (long story, another book).” Well, which book are you working on? And if you aren’t working on these stories, can you please tell us what happened?
I’m working on a book of short stories about Anchorage—and that weird existence between the city and the wilderness. Most of it is about dreamers, dazzled and deluded and crashing to earth. Not unlike myself.

The stories you’re talking about are part of a book I may never write…I ‘m not sure. It’s about very dumb things I did and survived.


In your book trailer, you say “by age eight, I could land a 40 pound king salmon, dig out an outhouse, patch a wader.” Will your kids be able to make similar claims? As a mother raising a nine-year-old, six-year-old, and one-year-old in the Washington DC area, I’m often frustrated that I can’t give my children experiences like hiking with crampons on a glacier at the age of two when we lived in Alaska. I too have photos from my childhood like the one on the cover of the book (your sassy pose beside your father who is repairing something in front of his floatplane and your dog Jasmine) and those you shared in various interviews (you as an infant bouncing up and down in a pack n’ play in the woods beside a tent) which I’m trying to capture for my kids now. What have you done to make sure your kids have the same experiences you did with your dad?

I just do the best I can. I try to go up with the kids once a year. This year we’re going to Fairbanks to go snow machining with my brother, who lives in a dry cabin. Other years, we’ve gone fishing, camping , skiing. The Alaska I grew up is kind of gone for me now—my dad no longer flies so we use cars and boats to get into the bush, which is a totally different experience. Powerful but different. I also just try to teach them all the skills they will need. They both ski, fish and do archery.


One of the things I loved about your book was the parenting tips that surface here and there. For example, “Ask kids about feelings. Specific ones. Mad. Sad. Broken Heart.” Do you have any tips for moms who are or dream of being travel writers?

Leave the kids with dad. Go. Come back with big present.  It will be happifying for you and inspirational for your kids. Show them how you want to live.


In interviews you shared that the process of writing Still Points North was not easy including a coffee spill right before the manuscript was due that shorted out your computer, “I wrote a lot of sloppy, long, meandering drafts. My editor Jennifer Smith at Dial was the one who kept (gently) pointing me in the right direction. Her comments really woke me up to the values of collaboration, even when that meant cutting out 120 pages (an excruciating process). The same went for her editorial assistant, Hannah, who weighed in on key points. Once I let them in, I had to let everybody in—agents, PR people, other writers. They all had good ideas, ones better than my own. It’s kind of shocking when you think about how talented and insightful people can be when you offer them the chance to help you.” From the point of time in which you sold Still Points North on a book proposal to publication, what advice can you offer other memoirists on how to navigate the implosion or explosion of a book? When to listen to your gut vs. agents/editors/writers?
I think….that you have the best b.s. meter. Usually when a good editor or agent points out an issue, you already know it’s an issue, you just couldn’t admit it to yourself. It is almost a relief to get rid of the problem. If they point out something that really doesn’t resonate—just don’t do it. I usually sit on edits for 3 days before I say or do anything. The first day I’m furious and weepy and sure they are idiots who just don’t get my vision. Then the second day, they might have a point. The third day, they are so insightful! How could I not have seen it!
We’ve all heard in critiques to avoid the present tense because it complicates what Philip Lopate calls the “double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.” And yet, you managed to do this beautifully in Still Points North. Please do share your secret.


I don’t know. I wish I did. I had read almost no memoirs when I wrote mine, save A Boy’s Life, which is in past tense. Now, of course, I feel so conflicted. Writing in the present tense is so natural for me. But I read all kinds of criticism about it (see William Gass) and it does rob you of reflecting, as an adult, on the complexity of what happened in your past. You lose out on your own hard won insight . So I wish I could do it differently—I feel very animalistic about writing, very instinctual—but I go back to the present, again and again. The past tense to me is sophisticated, elegant, and I long for it the way rube always long for urbanity, even as a rube knows she is still a rube.

The Great Blue Heron

It balances like royalty, on one long elegant leg upon a tree outside my bedroom window. Head raised high, azure blue-gray plumage ruffling gracefully in the breeze, it is a magnificent bird, nearly as large as my 18-month-old.

I had only seen it once before in the two years we lived in this townhouse. That time, I enjoyed the bird on my own. Baby was asleep in her crib, while I photographed the bird standing like a statue on that tree, stalking prey in a man-made lake trimmed with office buildings and houses. When it launched itself into the air, I nearly felt its wingtips brush my cheeks as I admired it quietly from my balcony. “Thank you,” I said to the bird, “for bringing me a taste of the wilderness that I am homesick for.” _MG_2804


Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

Today, Kyra is helping me pack bags for a road trip. Ethan jumps up and down on piles of clean laundry on my bed while Riley attempts to dip her fingers into the toilet (yes, her new game to annoy mommy). I pull the shades up, hoping the man-made lake as depressing as it is can rejuvenate me like the river that used to run in the backyard of my cabin in Alaska. And that’s when I see my bird.

I squeal. The kids drop whatever they are doing and press their noses against the window. “Mommy, is it injured? How come it only has one leg?” Ethan asks.

“What is it?” Kyra asks.

Perfect opportunity to crack open the Audubon  bird book, which we never get a chance to use now that we live in the city: “Who can tell me what kind of bird this is?”

While the kids flip through the book and ask each other questions like “does it have a yellow bill“ or “chestnut and black accents,” I tell them about the day I spent with this bird and how happy I am that they get a chance to meet it.

Finally, they reach a consensus: Great Blue Heron. I play its call on my iPhone bird app and Riley snatches it out of my hand. Kyra and Ethan wrestle the iPhone out of Riley’s hands and google answers they can’t find in the Audubon book.

Thank you Great Blue Heron for creating a teaching moment that entertains all three of my kids.


Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh

“Oooo mommy, do you know why herons stand on one leg? Thermoregulation hypothesis,” Kyra stumbles over the words, “Or to look less suspicious to their prey. Cool!” Now they are teaching me.

“Can we go on the balcony to see him?” Ethan asks.

I agree, but warn them that we must be quiet and go all at once so that we don’t scare the bird. While I put on a coat for Riley, Kyra steps out too impatient to wait. By the time, I get outside the heron is showing off its six-foot wingspan as it glides across the surface of the lake crusted with the light of the sun.

“Wow!” all three kids say.

They are so quiet that beneath the sound of the cars whipping by for last minute Christmas gifts at Fair Lakes Shopping Center, we can hear the ducks squawking on the shore and the advertisement calls of the frogs. Who knew that in the midst of office buildings and townhouses, animals had made a home for themselves just like I need to.


Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

Brace Yourself



This summer, I was determined to celebrate my children’s birthdays with an outdoor adventure. Three years ago, we had to uproot them from their place-of-birth (Alaska) and move to the Washington, D.C. area. I feared that they would lose their confidence in nature where at age 2, they could traverse a crevice in crampons with the biggest smile on their faces. So you can imagine my disappointment when I suggested whitewater rafting for Ethan’s birthday and both kids said, “No” without even looking up from their iPads.

“Do you even know what I’m talking about?” I asked after confiscating their iPads.

“Sounds scary,” Ethan said.

I sat both of them down in front of my laptop and searched for some videos. I explained how my parents took me rafting as soon as I was old enough. Ethan was turning six and I wanted to give him the same gift.

“I’d rather get toys,” Ethan said. That statement alone made up my mind. I was going to take them no matter what obstacles I had to overcome such as how were we going to afford the trip and who would we beg to watch my one-year-old.

Kyra, who turned nine a month ago, studied one of the rafting videos I found. For her birthday, we fished for flounders on the ocean but returned empty handed. “Boo,” she had said as she did now when she saw someone fall out of a raft on a Class 5.

“Boo,” she said again on Ethan’s birthday after all the arrangements I made to get us on the Shenandoah River. Our River Riders guide, Kaitlyn, had just maneuvered us through a series of Class 3 rapids. “The Doah” as Kaitlyn called it sloshed into the raft soaking our shoes.

Ethan complained, “Ack, I don’t want my feet wet!”

In an effort to get some reaction from my stone-faced kids, Kaitlyn pointed out some of the wildlife. “Do you see that bird with the long neck on the shore? That’s a blue herring or West Virginia Pterodactyl.”

The kids got frustrated that they couldn’t see the bird. Five rafts with the rest of the passengers guided by River Riders swept by.

Kaitlyn asked Kyra, “What can I do to make you smile?”


Kyra said, “I’m hungry.” For the month of August, we had a rare day when the sun did not burn my skin and a gentle breeze lifted the hair on the back of my neck and my child who was knownas the “thrill-seeker” in the family was paying absolutely no attention to her surroundings.

“Forward paddle,” Kaitlyn shouted at my husband and I. “Back paddle. Together please.” She had seated us at the frontof the raft and instructed us that the more in sync we were the smoother the ride. The river fought my paddle and a blister developed on my right thumb. I kept thinking, please, don’t let any of us fall into the river. Images from the safety video River Riders showed us at the start of the trip played in my mind. Feet trapped on the river bottom. Helmets slammed against rocks. So far, my husband had not made one comment about whether he thought this trip was a good idea or not. It seemed like our paddles were also not communicating too well.

By the time, we landed on a massive pile of boulders in the middle of the river I started to worry whether the city had ruined my family. As soon as each of us stepped onto the rock, we immediately scattered in different directions. Plus, with what seemed like thirty other people that landed with us, it took a while for me to herd the four of us together.
None of us said much as we downed several cups of pink lemonade which the guides reassured us would be the sugar kick we needed to get through the rest of the rapids. Kyra finished a granola bar that Kaitlyn had given her.

“Want to take a swim?” I asked Kyra and Ethan.

“I’m scared,” Ethan said.

“You know how to swim and you have a life jacket on,” I said, taking his little hand and helping him into the river. We all had the right gear, that’s something I am religious about, so our wet shoes gripped the slippery rocks as we made our way deeper into the river until the water rose to my waist. My husband seemed much more relaxed than I. He chased and splashed the kids while I just stood there observing them all. By the time someone snapped a family photo for us, both kids were floating on their backs and giggling.10553782_553026271469369_5096286803175696260_o

After our swim, Kaitlyn deftly guided us through a rapid called the “Dragon’s Tongue.” The boat spun 180 degrees and white froth coated our backs. Ethan loosened his death grip on a webbing strap and said, “I felt the tongue lick me.”

Meanwhile, Kyra started to warm up to Kaitlyn. She started to ask questions like “So can we pretend to fall off the boat?” or “When can we go down a waterfall?” or “Can I scuba dive?”

Scuba dive? How did my daughter know what scuba diving was?

Kailyn asked, “So if you could scuba dive anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

Without hesitation, Kyra replied, “Atlantis.”

Ethan agreed.

When we entered the Potomac River, Kaitlyn pointed out Virginia and Maryland and said we were now in the “State of Confusion” and I thought that’s exactly how I was feeling. Confused that I didn’t know my kids as well as I thought I did. Confused about whether my parenting had failed in the city.

Fortunately, Kaitlyn had a solution. First, she “surfed” our raft in Lower Staircase for a long time, long enough for the bucking, spinning wet ride to remind me to enjoy the present moment and the thrill of not being in control. Second, she hooked a flip line to a biner on the bow and asked Kyra and Ethan to hang onto it for our last rapid of the day.

“Brace yourself,” she yelled as we paddled hard down a chute. The raft tipped back and the kids were launched into the air above White Horse Rapid. As the raft pitched, Kyra and Ethan whooped so loud that the other rafters smiled at us.

Later on the way back to the car, after Kaitlyn arranged for all the rafters to sing “Happy Birthday,” Ethan grabbed my hand and pulled me down to his eye level. He whispered as if he were telling me the greatest secret ever, “Thank you, Mommy.”

I couldn’t resist asking, “So if you could only play your iPad or raft, which one would you choose?”

His cheeks turned pink. “The White Horse,” he said.



Also posted at Spawn and Survive

Interview with Christine Byl

Cross posted from Military Spouse Book Review Blog

Leslie Hsu Oh, a writer and former Army Corps of Engineers wife, joins us today with an interview with author Christine Byl, whose memoir Dirt Workhas made several recent “must-read” lists. Dirt Work is, according to Byl’s web site, “a lively and lyrical account of one woman’s unlikely apprenticeship on a National Park trail crew and what she discovers about nature, gender, and the value of hard work.”

Byl embraces the backbreaking difficulty of the work, learning how to clear trees, move boulders, and build stairs in the backcountry. Her first mentors are the colorful characters with whom she works—the packers, sawyers, and traildogs from all walks of life—along with the tools in her hands: axe, shovel, chainsaw, rock bar.

Eventually, Byl would turn her trail experience into her career; she now lives off the grid with her husband and an “old sled dog” in Healy, Alaska.

Both Leslie Hsu Oh and Byl graduated from the same Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and they share a love for nature and the outdoors (Leslie herself has explored nearly eighty national parks, monuments, and memorials — hiking, backpacking, and spelunking along the way). Many thanks to Leslie for sharing this piece, which originally ran just after its publication in April 2013 (in a slightly longer format) on the blog “49 Writers.”  -Andria


Author Interview:  Christine Byl, author of “Dirt Work” (by Leslie Hsu Oh, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Dirt Work begins with Byl’s first season working as a “traildog” in Glacier National Park. Byl never expected this summer gig to turn into a decades-long career, eventually bringing her to Alaska where now she runs a trail-design and construction business with her husband.

Byl2; cover photo by Terry Boyd. Cover design by Gabi Anderson at Beacon Press.

In Dirt Work, Byl probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor, “women’s work” and “men’s work,” white collars and blue collars. The supposedly simple work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts in fact offers an education of the hands and the head, as well as membership in an utterly unique subculture. Byl’s new release has been named a top non-fiction pick for spring by Amazon, The Christian Science Monitor, and O Magazine. It was also recently shortlisted for the Willa Award, which is for books by women set in the west (and named for author Willa Cather)!

Leslie Hsu Oh: In your introduction, you state that Dirt Work “is not meant to be a memoir.” Why was this an important distinction to make and how do you feel when reviewers label it as such?

Christine Byl: The distinction was important because it speaks to the origins of the book, my intent. I have always conceived of Dirt Work as a collective story more than a personal one; a story of my crewmates and me and the subculture we make together, and also, as the story of these places I’ve worked, places that are as real and individual to me as people.

But after the first draft, in which there was very little of myself as a character, several trusted readers said they wanted more of me. This was a surprise–I thought I was writing a book about tools and wilderness and work. But readers craved that narrative thread to anchor the other elements. I was very resistant to write more about myself at first (I’m a fiction writer! I’m an introvert!), but as I sat with it, I realized that my experience was integral to the idea of apprenticeship that the book wanted to plumb. I was the lens that a reader could look through to see the world I wanted to show. When I started trail work, I was a beginner, a novice, totally out of my element. The reader needed that entry, especially since the material and the subculture was unfamiliar to most. Once I thought of myself in the book as a character, a narrator, and not my entire self that I felt shy about revealing, it became much easier to offer the pieces that mattered to the story.

I can see why reviewers label it as a memoir. You have to put it somewhere, call it something, and the way I usually stumble to describe it (“this weird blend of non-fiction and memoir and technical manual and natural history with some dirty jokes and prose poems…”) is definitely not useful for a bookstore. But really, very refined genre labels are more commercial than literary. It’s a shelving distinction, not a craft one. To me the book feels, as I say in the Intro, like “the story of a few wild places, people who work in them, and how I came to be at home there.” With a little more of me than I first thought.


Byl; photo by Lucy Capeheart

Dirt Work covers 16 years of your life. In an interview, you shared that it took only five to seven months actual desk writing time. How did you make the tough decisions of what to leave out? Where to indulge, where to compress?

It took about seven months of desk time just to complete a first draft, spread out from 2002-2008. One early essay. Slim version of eventual first chapter written later that year. Then, no work on it for years. Another three month burst one summer. A last push the winter after that. Then began revisions, which took about three years. The whole process, from first graph to book in hands, was about 10 years.

The hardest decisions came around trying to pin to the page some seriously wily oral tradition–the lingo of traildogs, the stories we tell each other, the way we see ourselves, our canon of important stuff. It’s all so interwoven, which stories, which people, which tales to leave out? For every one trailside story in the book, one joke or prank or seminal moment, there are twenty-five I didn’t write. There’s just no room. It had to have a shape, not just be a mass of anecdote, no matter how appealing the pieces.

But as for the overall decisions, once I settled on the form–each chapter focused around a tool and a geographic region I’ve worked in–the pieces came together pretty organically. It was a specific story, the story of my apprenticeship as a traildog, and not the story of sixteen years of every facet of my life. Every choice was in service of that–does it support the larger story, about the people, the culture, this life?

What is your approach to writing about others? Did you share early drafts with Gabe or anybody else that appears in the book and revise if they objected to anything? Have you heard from any of the “traildogs” you apologize to in your acknowledgements for poaching a story or getting a detail wrong?

I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I don’t think writers need permission to write anything. I think our task, particularly in creative nonfiction, is to write honestly and bravely, candid about our own biases and limitations, aware that the only perspective we can write from is our own. When we write about others, we are writing our version of them, not some essential thing, but we’re free to write whatever we want.

I also strongly believe that I owe it to those I write about, and to myself, to be as ethical as possible, and to err always on the side of compassion and largeness of heart, a Golden Rule version of memoir, I guess. Write about others as I would hope to be written about, with the same eye toward accuracy and empathy and consideration of nuance. I wouldn’t write myself in a flat or stereotypical fashion, and even when writing about my failings, I would show myself a degree of compassion. So, I have to do that for other subjects as well. Not sanctifying, or showing only the good stuff. But in my gaze at others, seeing their complexity, not just what first occurs to me. And considering how they would feel about certain details exposed.

For example, one person I wrote about is very, very private. I left out things I could have easily put in, about living together, about her personal quirks, that might have made her feel vulnerable. Since I didn’t need those details to serve the larger story (even though some of them were great character-building bits) I left them out in deference to her way in the world. I think the fact that I’m also a very private person helps me err on the conservative side of writing about others.

I haven’t heard from anyone yet, since the book has only been out a week. (Except for Gabe, who was fine with his appearances.) I’m sure I will eventually hear, especially from traildogs, about particular details I got wrong or remember differently: You weren’t on that hitch, or It was Park Creek, not Ole! That’s the oral tradition for you. But I hope that I got the heart of things right. I’m sure there are some missteps, but it was a risk I was willing to take. I think that world is worth honoring, knowing about, even if someone else might put things differently.

As a fellow recipient of the question “when are you going to get a real job,” I appreciated this thread throughout the book and how you handled the skeptics. Does the question “Am I wasting my life?” get more difficult to answer as you age? Do you think ten years from now, you will still remain true to that narrator who hollers from rooftops “do what you love, be proud of what you do”?

Well, ten years from now my job will probably have changed a bit. Nothing lasts, after all, least of all knees and elbows, and new opportunities always arise. But I hope that “be proud of what you do” would be a thing to carry with me no matter where I end up, an inner compass that guides exterior choices, and helps me settle in to change when it happens.

Really, my life, as a laborer and as a writer and as an everything else, moves between these two poles all the time: Confidence and niggling doubt. Contentment and worry. Rooftop hollering and internal mutters. I don’t think I’m alone here. Old or young, seasonals or not, almost everyone I know and love, or admire from afar– people who throw their whole selves at things but also think deeply about them–move between headlong and humble. I’m turning forty this summer, and I think if anything, aging has been helping me learn how to pivot more gracefully.

buy “Dirt Work” here

Christine Byl received her MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska-Anchorage in 2005, and her prose has appeared in literary magazines, journals, and anthologies including The Sun, Glimmer Train Stories,Crazyhorse, and others. Byl lives off the grid with an old sled dog in a yurt on a few acres of tundra just north of Denali National Park. When she isn’t working outside or writing, she loves reading, homestead projects, wilderness adventures, and anything that happens in the snow. Check her out at and on Facebook. You can read an excerpt from Dirt Work here.