Woodside Field Guide
39° 30′ N / 75° 2′ W
Just about every ancestor on the Woodside side of the family was some kind of tenant farmer in southern New Jersey dating to pre-Revolutionary War. They were hard-working people who probably didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t go to college. Her grandfather Amos Harris Woodside left the farm as a teenager for a better life in Trenton (“Trenton makes, the world takes”). He was a union card holder. During the Great Depression there was no work, so Harris, as he was called, started a milk delivery business. Chris’s father, Robert Hanks Woodside, got up at 1 a.m. when he was in high school to help his father deliver milk. They talked a lot about everything during those early dark hours in the truck.
Hard work, making your own success, and talking things out became family traditions that all affected Chris’s decision to be a writer, and her writing itself. Her father talked a lot about real life, too, from the time she was tiny. He was a solid, confident man who had been a professional soccer player but grown up poor. He was self-made.
39° 57’N / 75° 10′ W
Chris’s mother Gloria Nicholson Woodside grew up in Philadelphia, where her parents had grown up. Her father worked for the telephone company and was a ham radio operator and a trombone player. Her mother Viola was a petite jokester who raised her own three daughters and her niece. Gloria married Bob when she was 20. In her 40s, she became a self-taught costume designer for the Princeton Ballet. Another self-made hard worker. All of the Woodside children were born in Philadelphia. The family lived in Southampton, Pennsylvania until 1963 and then moved to Princeton, New Jersey in 1963.
40° 21’ N / 74° 40’ W
Her three older brothers and younger sister found Princeton in the 1960s and 1970s to offer tremendous independence. They played outside with no agenda and bicycled uptown with no adults along. They could get themselves anywhere in town they needed. They pedaled often to school and across the Princeton University campus to get to Episcopal church choir practice. The choir loomed large in how the Woodsides practiced their faith and made sense of authority. It was also the first place Chris and her brother, John, learned to read music. One odd highlight of this period was when she played the raven in Trinity’s production of “Noye’s Fludde,” a Renaissance era interpretation of the Ark which Benjamin Britten had composed into a church opera. Chris’s parents gave the kids piano, clarinet, and dance lessons and summer camp (Les Chalets Francais, on the coast of Downeast Maine).
Her first writing project was to be a two-volume safety manual, an idea developed with a friend in the fake-log-cabin playhouse in the Princeton back yard. By age 12 Chris was under the spell of the school system’s traveling creative writing teacher Eugene Doherty. He loved Ernest Hemingway and could quote The Old Man and the Sea.
Chris faced a setback in 1977, when four colleges she’d applied to rejected her. This mattered because her mother has never finished college, having given it up for marriage. Chris’s father had funded his college on soccer scholarships and through the GI bill. She was a motivated learner but not savvy in the ways of the college search or extra studying. In the end, she applied late to Emory University, where she went for a year and a half. She transferred to the University of Pennsylvania halfway through sophomore year. Philadelphia and majoring in American Civilization and writing for the Daily Pennsylvanian were the life she’d wanted.
39° 57’N / 75° 10′ W
Her first journalism job was typesetting and helping with production at Town Topics, a weekly in Princeton, after her sophomore year in college. She also was an intern reporter at a little paper in Burlington County, New Jersey, called, unbelievably, The Little Paper. In this, the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was not that easy for a young woman to get ahead in journalism. She applied for an internship at the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next year, and the managing editor said, looking at her clips from the Little Paper, “You must have worked really hard on those. You had to interview all those people!” Grr.
At 22 she had her BA and was answering telephones and typing obituaries at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Soon after she took a job as assistant editor at a weekly paper in Center City Philadelphia. The Welcomat (yes, that was the name then) was a former shopper paper on its way to being an alternative weekly. She worked for the business writer Dan Rottenberg as the only fulltime staffer.
And so she wrote articles and a column on a portable electric typewriter on the third floor of a row house near 18th and Ludlow streets. She was the paper’s photographer, shooting three rolls of film a week and gradually learning not to catch the backs of people. She commuted around the city by bicycle and hosted experimental radio shows on WXPN-FM.
34° 32′ N / 83° 59′ W to
45° 39′ N / 68° 42′ W
41° 23′ 8″ N / 72° 26′ 8″ W
Chris and her husband left their jobs in spring 1987 to hike the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. This was a huge turning point. After the AT hike, Chris’s artistic and journalistic focus turned toward the natural world, climate change, forests, and history. After the AT, she and Nat moved to Connecticut, where she worked at The Day, a regional daily, and he taught science for years.
Daughters Elizabeth and Annie were born in 1988 and 1990.
Chris covered many beats and edited news and science reporters at The Day. She learned how to write better, faster, and to report with less fear. The lower Connecticut River had gone from “the world’s most beautifully landscaped cesspool” to an internationally regarded wetlands. These stories and her mountain experience propelled her into starting the environment beat at The Day. She was the environment reporter for three years, during which time she was chosen as a fellow ofthe Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island. She began her freelance career in 2000.
The backcountry rambler in her met the editor and writer these last several years. The Blue-Blazed Hiking Trails of Connecticut grabbed Chris in 2001, when she hiked the Metacomet Trail in sections and wrote about the journey for Appalachia. This led to her becoming editor of Connecticut Woodlands magazine. Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which publishes it, also recruits and guides trail maintainers on the Blue Trails. For some 15 years, Chris has been maintaining a section of the Mattabesett Trail and all of the Reservoir Loop Trail in Middletown. In fall 2005 she became editor of Appalachia (published by the Appalachian Mountain Club). Ever since then, she has used mountains for networking. She meets extraordinary hikers and writers every season, on and off the trail.
Restored prairie in West Branch, Iowa.
Manuscript of The First Four Years at the Hoover Presidential Library.
She begins to understand some of the plants and animals of the lower Connecticut River Valley, where (when not traveling to the mountains or the occasional reporting trip) she leads a simple but intense life of work, hiking, trail running, caring for her poodle, Talley, growing vegetables and blueberries, and singing at her Episcopal church. Cold nights find her by the wood stove at home.
Maybe her favorite pastime outside of work is trail maintenance. It takes her out of herself and into the realm of doing. Americans are always in a hurry. When you’re hauling a rusted axel out of the woods (or asking teenagers to do it for you) you can’t hurry. Then you start to notice hawks.
She also enjoyed greatly her trips to the Midwest researching her book Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little house Books. The book is out on September 6, 2016 from Arcade Publishing, the press founded to encourage different voices (now a division of Skyhorse). The book tells the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House” pioneer book series, and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a founder of the libertarian political movement. In secret collaboration, the two women recast Laura’s pioneer childhood story as a fable of self-relance and independence. She chased this story in West Branch, Iowa, where the Rose Wilder Lane/Laura Ingalls Wilder papers reside (at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library); at the Ingalls house sites in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri; in other paper collections and sources in Florida, New York City, and Michigan; and to Rose’s former home in Danbury, Connecticut. Chris published articles about Laura and Rose for the history magazine Connecticut Explored and for the Boston Globe.