By Madison Fisler Lewis
Feb. 23, 2015. Leigh Ann Henion is many things. A journalist, a traveler, an educator, a mother, a dreamer. Now, for the first time, the Boone resident will add published author to her resume. On March 24, Penguin Press will officially release Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World, Henion’s personal memoir detailing her years through hardship, self-discovery and revelation.
A North Carolina native, Henion spent her formative years moving around from place to place, a unique habit that has inadvertently spilled into her adult life. Although she has always had a knack for finding her own place in the world, it wasn’t until the birth of her son, Archer, that she decided to embark on a journey that proved to be all at once scary, poignant and transformative.
As an adult, Henion made a name for herself writing for The Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian, Oxford American, Orion, Preservation, The Mountain Times, Our State Magazine and other publications.
“I had a magazine assignment that sent me to Mexico to write about the Monarch butterfly migration,” Henion said.
“That was an experience I had a hard time letting go of. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I kept thinking about that experience and when I had my son Archer – pregnancy, birthing and having an infant were really transformative experiences. They were really difficult – my body, my life, everything was suddenly different.”
After the birth of her child, Henion found herself struggling to reconcile the freedom of her old life with her responsibilities as a mother.
“I was always told that women could do whatever they want, but when I became a mother, my cultural understanding of what a mother could do was something that I struggled with,” she said.
“Could I still travel? Everything in my life involves my son, but did I have to travel only where he could go with me? It is hard to even verbalize the identity struggle that I think really acutely happened to me. I do know that other people struggle with this, but it was a really personal struggle for me.”
It was this struggle to find her identity in the face of cultural norms that led Henion to start a list of phenomena that she was determined to experience. This list, started as a way for Henion to experience the world at the fringes of her comfort zone, became the basis for a transformative journey that spanned nearly half a decade.
“I was losing my mind a little bit, there were a lot of things going on at that time,” she said. “I was teaching at ASU, I was being a mother to my young son, some parts of my life had regularity but a lot of other parts didn’t. In this period, I started to experience some emotional challenges. In this time, I had started keeping a list of phenomena starting with the butterflies that had so moved and inspired me. Over time, I don’t even know how it happened, but I had this idea to get freelance assignments and start going down the list.”
Henion’s journey, which later became the basis for her memoir, was born out of a search for wonder after the birth of Archer. Her adventures ranged from standing in awe under eclipses to experiencing fierce lightning storms in Venezuela and plenty more in between.
“My son was seeing the world for the first time and I was yearning to see the world as he was seeing it. We were seeing the world together and it was a transformative experience. It was, really, a pilgrimage.”
With her son Archer now five years old, Henion has completed much of her list and has pioneered her own journey into the wondrous unknown. Throughout her travels, though, she maintains that the most transformative part of her adventures were the people who inspired her along the way.
“It was a struggle, financially, to do this,” she said.
“I was able to cover my expenses. I ate a lot of peanut butter and packed freeze-dried bean soups and ate them in hotel rooms. But it was all worth it. I met people on these journeys that had literally sold their houses to travel. I met people who were fellow phenomena chasers who planned their lives on where they could see the next eclipse. These people worked six months on and six months off, laborers, squirreling away funds, Meeting all of these people and their situations was really very inspiring. I found it inspiring to be around so many people who made travel a priority. The more you see people do these impossible trips to have these amazing experiences, the more they inspire you to do the same.”
At what some would call the end of her journey, and what Henion would defend as only the beginning of her life’s adventure, after many long years Henion can now look ahead to the release of the memoirs detailing her winding path to self-discovery.
The official launch party forPhenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World will take place on March 26 at Whitewater Cafe in the Plemmons Student Union at Appalachian State University. The event will take place from 5-8 p.m.
“I have been working on this project for so long,” Henion said.
“I really hope that everyone will come and celebrate with me. In a way, I have been working toward this for my entire life. All of the writing I did before about the community has been leading me to this project. I would really love to see all of the people from all of the stages of my life.”
After the launch, Henion will be present March 27 and 28 in the lobby of the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts during the BANFF Film Festival, sponsored by the University Bookstore.
Appalachian State University, the site of her official book launch, holds a special place in Henion’s heart. She has been a member of the school’s faculty since 2006 and finds that her teaching methods are quite entwined with her transformative experiences detailed in her memoir.
“I hope that my writing and my teaching encourages other people to pursue whatever they are passionate about,” Henion mused.
“In my life, I have fought against my own feelings of practicality and fought to pursue a life that is a little bit nontraditional. It really is a wonderful life.”
For more information about Leigh Ann Henion, her memoir, or to pre-order a copy of the book, click here.