Eagle River author turns Alaska experience into personal memoir
In many ways, Adrienne Lindholm’s story is the ultimate Alaska cliche.
“I thought I’d have my Alaskan experience in one summer,” the Eagle River author said during a recent interview in Anchorage. “That was 2000, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Though Lindholm’s Alaska origin story is a common one, her experience here has been anything but. After arriving from the Lower 48 as a well-traveled but still green Cheechako, she immersed herself in the backcountry, embarking on a journey of self discovery that forms the basis of “It Happened Like This: A Life in Alaska,” her new memoir about coming of age in the Last Frontier.
The book (which was released in August by Seattle-based Mountaineers Books) chronicles Lindholm’s adventures from her time as a “newbie” backcountry ranger in Denali National Park through her experiences as an employee of the National Parks Service and her personal journey to start a family and find a community. It was a highly personal story for the Philadelphia native to tell, but Lindholm believes through its telling she can help others embarking on similar journeys of self discovery.
“It builds community when we share these types of experiences,” she said.
Lindholm is now a highly skilled outdoorswoman, but when she arrived in Alaska she said she was wholly unprepared for the state’s vast, untamed wilderness. Though she’d hiked the Appalachian Trail and was an avid hiker and camper, Lindholm said Alaska was a completely different beast.
“I was such a newbie, the typical wide-eyed girl coming here with a college degree thinking you know something,” she said.
As she learned the ways of Alaska, Lindholm grew more confident. But she still remembers what it was like to be out of her element and intimidated by Alaska’s vastness.
“The differences are so striking,” she said. “The scale of the place and the remoteness is just otherworldly.”
Lindholm has been writing personal essays since as far back as she can remember. Over her years in Alaska, she said she began to realize her writing seemed to continually focus on the common themes of her outdoor experiences and her personal life.
“I started to notice that my time in the wilderness and all of my outdoor experiences that I have had over the years either inspired or shaped those life experiences I has having,” she said. “So I started to write about how those parts of my life were interconnected.”
Lindholm began submitting her essays to publishers, who were enthusiastic but realistic.
“I got several responses that said, ‘We really like your writing, but nobody reads essays,’” she said.
So Lindholm had to essentially start from scratch; she had to learn what a story arc, how to craft a narrative, how to develop characters. At the time, she was on maternity leave from her job as coordinator of the National Parks Service’s Wilderness Stewardship Program after the birth of her first daughter, and was able to use that time to bring the book together.
“It really meant a lot to me to kind of birth this project,” she said.
Finishing the book was really just the first step. Next, Lindholm had to work with an editor to sculpt the finished product, a process that took a couple more years. However, working with editor Kirsten Colten, Lindholm was able to hone her essays into a narrative book reviewer Nancy Lord called “a life-affirming story about the ways we test ourselves against our physical selves, our connections to home and wilfe places and our beliefs.”
The book chronicles everything from Lindholm’s encounters with wild animals to her dating life.
“It’s a coming-of-age memoir, set in the backdrop of the Alaska wilderness,” she said. “And there’s some difficult things we all encounter throughout our journeys. To be really raw and honest about those experiences in my life was not an easy thing to do.”
Having her book published was a validating experience for someone whose writing is deeply personal, Lindholm said.
“To deliver this very personal narrative is both exciting and horrifying,” she said. “I keep calling it my experiment in vulnerability.”
Lindholm’s book ends in 2012, but her story doesn’t end there. She and her husband, J.T., have gone through a lot in the intervening years — including the loss of their daughter, Avery, in 2015, and the subsequent adoption of two small children.
“The last six years of my life have been pretty intense,” she said. “And that’s what the next book is going to be about.”
At its heart, Lindholm said her book is in many ways a celebration of the place she’s come to love and call home.
“It’s been really fun to celebrate this place where we live,” she said.
Lindholm said her view of Alaska has “changed so much over the last 20 years.” When she first arrived, she said she was trying to prove herself against the rugged peaks of Alaska’s mountains. Later, it became a “sanctuary” where she could be alone with her thoughts. Now, she said she’s begun to see the backcountry in a whole new way.
“Getting to explore the Chugach with a 2-year-old is fascinating,” she said.
The book has been well received, and was named one of six “Best New Adventure Books for Fall” by Oustide Magazine. Still, Lindholm said she has no plans to get rich off her writing, and doesn’t expect to become famous from her memoir.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it on Oprah,” she said with a laugh.
But she is hopeful that by sharing her experiences, she can inform and inspire others making a similar journey into the unknown.
“It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a beginner,” she said.
There will be a book launch celebration on Nov. 2 at 5:30 p.m. at the Red Chair Cafe in downtown Anchorage. The launch is a “First Friday” event and open to the public. To learn more about Lindholm, visit her website at adriennelindholm.com.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Lindholm’s work her first summer in Denali National Park. She was a park ranger, not a guide.
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call (907) 257-4274