In the summer of 2016, Andrea Lani and her family left Maine to go on a hike. A 500-mile hike, Denver to Durango, on the Colorado Trail. She and her husband Curry had done the same hike 20 years earlier, but this time they were going with their boys Milo (15 and acting it) and 11-year old twins Emmet and Zephyr. What did they think they were doing?

Stories about long hikes can be picaresque (Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”). They might focus on exotic cultures (“A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush,” by Eric Newby) or the natural world (John Muir’s “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf”). But beneath the mechanics of the venture, most such accounts are at heart about leaving life’s routine to seek some kind of enlightenment. “Uphill Both Ways” talks a lot about nature, the environment and humankind’s impact on the natural world, but at its core it is about the author stepping away from day-to-day life to seek revitalization on the trail.

But let’s begin with the mechanics. As a reasonably experienced backpacker, the first thing I checked in Lani’s book was her equipment list, the things they carried. Therma-rest pads, sleeping quilts (not bags), and very light backpacks for everyone. Hiking poles for the adults but not the children. One tent. Rain gear and gaiters all around, and warm layers for the cold nights above tree-line. So far, so good.

No bear canister for food, but those are heavy and not necessary if you aren’t around problem bears. Umbrellas and one or another bit of electronica for everyone. Well, OK I guess. Light shoes instead of boots, even though Curry has a pair of Peter Limmer’s from over in New Hampshire and they’re hiking 500 miles. Only Andrea carries sun block. Fewer spare clothes than I’d want and only one water purifying UV light for the group. I’m getting less comfortable here. But they know the trail and from her description they are usually no more than a day from a road or town.

No stove. What? That’s gotta be a mistake. I read the list again – no stove. No fuel bottle, no matches, no lighter. No hot food at night, no hot drink in the morning, no emergency water purification back-up. To save maybe four pounds? That’s a terrible decision. Suddenly, I’m not so eager to be on this trek.

And then we’re off, and I start feeling better. Lani has a fine sense of the geology, biology and topography of the land she’s crossing, and feeds us interesting tidbits of its cultural and economic history. And she’s presenting the right attitude for a long trail hiker. “The point of this hike,” she says, “is to be here on the trail.”


Each chapter describes a leg of the trip, and each is introduced with a lovely pencil drawing (uncredited, so I assume they are hers) of a flower, leaf or butterfly that she’s seen along the trail. She knows these from growing up in Colorado, and readers who’ve visited the Rockies will recognize them as well. They will also recognize the woods and wildlife. A moose, looking like it was “made up of spare parts,” or an old burn filled with jackstrawed lodgepole pines.

Andrea does her best to focus on her here and now, but she can’t get away from the other things she’s carrying. She’s angry about the job she hates and angry about being caught in a place, Maine, she doesn’t like. She resents her role in making and breaking camp, and by extension her role at home. She’s grumpy about other hikers on the trail and unhappy with the way other people are using the territory she’d rather have to herself. She hates the cattle grazing, mining, and road-building in the public lands she’s hiking through, and as the trip progresses I’m increasingly worried about what seems to be an uncertain relationship with her husband.

The days turn into a grind. “As I trudge upward I vow never to go hiking again.” The trail presents a repetitive sameness of ridges and valleys, aspen and sage, talus and scree. They get a lot of rain, suffer bad campsites and endure far too many “cold, dismal meals” of reconstituted mush.

Then she gets a new pair of shoes. Durango is close, and like a team of horses that smells the barn, they finish with a push, right on schedule. They get home a day before the boys are due to start school.

“Am I happier than I was five years ago?” she asks in her epilogue.  Not surprisingly, yes.  “I’ve taken the lessons of the trail to heart” “try to appreciate the here and now, and approach obstacles like mountain ranges, one step at a time.” A new job, still not perfect, is perfectly OK, and things sound much more comfortable at home than they seemed on the trail.  She is even contemplating a new backpacking trip.  But the next time, she vows, “I’ll bring a stove.”

John Alden, a retired archaeologist, once spent six weeks backpacking in the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness.

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