In a new book, North Carolina authors offer unique perspective on ‘The People’s Trail’
The first thing to know about Joshua and Amber Niven is that their lives have been wholly shaped by the Appalachian Trail.
For starters, they both thru-hiked the 2,194-mile footpath, Joshua in 2013 and Amber in 2014. They met in 2015 at the Appalachian Trail Days Festival in Damascus, Va., an annual gathering that celebrates thru-hiker culture and the trail itself. Joshua and Amber were vendors at trail days, and they connected over their shared commitment to creativity and their love of the trail.
We wanted to create an artistic expression of the entire Appalachain Trail.”
Today, married with two young kids, they can see the Appalachian Trail from their homestead in western North Carolina. “Our lives have aligned with the trail,” says Joshua. “It’s been a constant thread.”
It only makes sense, then, that their co-authored new book, Discovering the Appalachian Trail, is about the footpath that has defined them.
The book hit shelves in June and was published by Falcon, an outfit traditionally known for its guidebooks. But Joshua contends that Discovering the Appalachian Trail isn’t a guidebook at all. Instead, it focuses on the stories that unfold on and because of the trail. “We wanted to create an artistic expression of the entire A.T.,” he explains.
It was an undertaking that aligns well with the couple’s talents.
Joshua spent his teenage years exploring the Appalachian Trail with his friends. He says spending long periods of time in the forest got him out of a “messed up period in life.” In 2012 he graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design with a degree in photography. His 2013 thru-hike was a part of his thesis and resulted in a coffee table art book.
Amber grew up in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains and spent much of her youth hiking with her dad, a scoutmaster. She began her southbound hike with her father and brother, walking 1,400 miles south from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Virginia before a medical issue forced her from the trail. A writer and lifelong journal keeper, Amber meticulously documented her 2014 hike.
“We always had it in the back of our brain that if we ever got the opportunity we could take my photography and her writing and do something with it,” Josh explains.
When that opportunity came, Joshua and Amber knew they wanted their book to be more than a step-by-step guide to hiking the trail. Drawing from their thru-hiking experiences, they created a collection of hikes, stories, and tidbits that capture the spirit of the world’s longest hiking-only footpath.
“If somebody has already hiked the trail and they want to show others what the trail is about, or if someone wants to experience the best of what the trail has to offer, that’s what this book will do,” Joshua says. “It’s an armchair thru-hike.”
But in order to collect the information and photos for those armchair thru-hikers to enjoy, Amber and Joshua had to get their boots dirty. They purchased a camper and set out to explore the trail once again, this time while carrying their kids in Osprey backpacks. Embarking on A.T. day hikes, they filled in the gaps in their memory, took updated photos, and jotted down notes. In all, it took the couple three years to write Discovering the Appalachian Trail.
The book is organized in sequential order from the southern terminus of the trail at Springer Mountain in Georgia to the northern terminus at Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, so that readers can experience the trail in its entirety. Visually stunning, it’s filled with full color photographs taken by Joshua, “in order to give readers a visceral experience,” he says.
But the thing that makes Discovering the Appalachian Trail stand out is that it features the stories of the people who shaped the trail and whose lives have been shaped by it — including Joshua and Amber’s own lives. “The Appalachian Trail is the people’s trail,” says Joshua. “Everyone knows what the A.T. is but I don’t know if they know what the intention of the trail was. It was about bringing people together.”
The book explains the history and the legend of the A.T. and tells the stories of the people who created the trail and those who first walked it. It also features the stories of modern day thru-hikers. “The stories are pretty unique,” Joshua says.
In addition to the you-won’t-hear-this-anywhere-else stories, the book also includes information about A.T. culture and the mountain towns hikers pass through along the way. The decision to focus not just on the hike but on the entire A.T. experience was important to the couple. “There’s so much more that’s going on during a thru-hike that doesn’t have anything to do with being in nature,” says Joshua. “We wanted those things to show up in the book too.”
Joshua and Amber also included popular hikes—with at-a-glance specs, a detailed description with miles and directional cues, and a difficulty rating—campsites, maps, and elevation profiles.
Amber says they feature a wide range of hikes to ensure that they are accessible to people of differing abilities.
In the end, the couple wanted to create a book that, like the Appalachian Trail itself, is about the people and for the people. “You can discover the trail in a bunch of different ways,” says Amber. “You can discover it at any point in life. You can enjoy the trail from the car or in its entirety with a backpack on,” she says. “I’m not sure of another thing in our country that has as much to offer as the Appalachian Trail.”
Cover Photo: Joshua and amber niven with their children. Photo courtesy of the Niven family