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Phil D'Anieri

Phil D'Anieri

He's written the biography of the Appalachian Trail.

by Shelley Daily

From the December, 2021 issue

Phil D'Anieri sits by the front window of the downtown Sweetwaters in a baseball cap and glasses with his laptop and coffee at hand. For almost a decade he'd come here to work on his first book, The Appalachian Trail: A Biography--a project that began as a hobby and was published this summer. The New York Times calls it a "stalwart biography" and named it a recommended book of the week.

"It's only 270 pages, but for the time it took me it should be War and Peace," D'Anieri laughs. A U-M lecturer in urban and regional planning, D'Anieri, fifty-three, says he wanted to "write a book that I wanted to read," so he told the trail's story through its people, devoting each chapter to a different person who helped create the world's longest foot path.

For years D'Anieri dedicated his summers to learning about a new character, traveling to archives out east, or hiking a short portion of the trail for a day.

"Everyone assumed we knew everything about the trail," says U-M urban historian Robert Fishman, who taught

D'Anieri when he was a doctoral student. "But he uncovers a remarkable amount of new information about the real making of the trail ... the collective, grassroots efforts of obscure people and dedicated trailmakers."

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D'Anieri grew up the youngest of five kids in Schenectady, New York, in a "classic postwar suburb." His mother was a housewife from Maine and his father, the son of Italian immigrants from Brooklyn, was a General Electric engineer and "frustrated historian" who wrote genealogy books after he retired. Once D'Anieri left home to get his political theory degree from MSU's James Madison College, he was in Michigan to stay.

D'Anieri "hopscotched" his way through a "sample platter of civic engagement" jobs after graduation: WDET Detroit radio news reporter, communications work with the Michigan State Senate, and program director for the Ann Arbor Community Foundation. He got his PhD in 2007 and became

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a full-time lecturer twelve years ago, the longest position he's held.

"I knew I was not meant for the tenure track," he says--he "didn't fit into scholarly pigeon holes." Working as a lecturer pays the bills, and the students keep him engaged: "For all the drive that's on display at Michigan, there's still a lot of good old-fashioned curiosity, sincerity, and good intentions about how to find one's way in the world.

"There was a part of me as a younger person that genuinely imagined that if I got into that world of journalism or politics or policy or academia I could play a teeny-tiny role ... in making the world a better place," he says. Instead, he became frustrated with the bureaucracy. "The people who do stay productively engaged I have a ton of respect for, because I just ran away," he says.

He describes himself as "pretty grouchy." D'Anieri's wife, Alicia Farmer, laughs at that description.

A fellow James Madison grad who graduated a year after him, Farmer had contacted him for an alumni project when she was working for the university and he was at the radio station. "The first time I met him I didn't like him at all," she says. "He had this gruff exterior. He was this New York guy--very direct." (Farmer is from Milan, Michigan.)

When he asked her out, she says, she quickly discovered a more thoughtful person underneath. They were engaged within two months and have been married for twenty-eight years. "Early on we decided it was pretty important to us to support each other on our personal journeys of self-discovery," says Farmer, who's a program manager for the U-M Biological Station.

As newlyweds, Farmer went through U-M law school while D'Anieri worked, and later she supported him as he studied for his PhD when their sons were young. James Farmer is now nineteen and a student at Case Western, and Avery Farmer, twenty-three, is in law school in Boston.

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D'Anieri says he "didn't know a thing about publishing" and found an agent through an online search after most rejected him. The project sat for a couple years until 2018, when, worried he might lose his U-M job because of budget cuts, he decided it was time to "fish or cut bait." He polished up his book proposal, sent it out, and received multiple offers, signing a contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

"That was a good day," he says. He shared the news with Farmer when he picked her up from work on Central Campus. "We hooted and hollered a bit in the car on the way home," she says. D'Anieri received an advance of a "very pleasant sum, but not a change-your-lifestyle amount." They still have their one car, a 2017 Honda Fit, and mostly walk to work for their campus jobs.

As D'Anieri worked to finish his manuscript he tracked down a key subject, Bill Bryson, author of the A.T. classic A Walk in the Woods. Bryson invited him to Austin, Texas, where he was on his last book tour before retirement. D'Anieri hopped a flight and interviewed Bryson for a few hours in the lobby of his hotel. Bryson was "very gracious. But I still don't know if he's read it or not."

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D'Anieri's served on the city parks commission and ran for the county board years ago, but grew weary of the "churn of the same old stuff ... I've watched this movie of Ann Arbor planning controversies so many times I do not need to see the thirteenth sequel."

The "density versus suburbia" topic never goes away, he says. He would eliminate single family zoning like Minneapolis has and allow any lot to be turned into a duplex. "My ideal Ann Arbor would make more room for more people of more income levels," he says, and not "act like any other suburb to sort of wall off our privilege ... Cities are at their best when they embrace their city-ness."

Though Covid killed the hopes of a normal book tour, he's done a few podcast interviews and virtual bookstore readings, including at Literati. He plans to write another book, and whatever the topic, he will make the research fun. And he'll keep coming back to Sweetwaters where he'll tap away on his keyboard and drink his favorite Midnight Blend.     (end of article)

[Originally published in December, 2021.]

 


 
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