n your first book Piano Lessons, you described your decision and then determination to fulfill a lifetime dream by learning to play the piano. Was there a similar inspiration behind the travels on the New River that you write about in Far Appalachia?
It really wasn't a quest. It was simply a way to write a book about Appalachia. I tried for years to figure out how to write a book about Appalachia. In fact, I once wasted an entire great month in Maine writing a 21-page proposal for a book about Appalachia. It got circulated but nobody bought it. I got to thinking about the New River and looking at maps of it. I called some one and asked if he knew where the source was, North Carolina, and could you go there, yes, and had anyone ever traveled the length of the river and he told me that some people had but there wasn't much point to it. It's not an incredible athletic feat to travel the entire length of the river.
Not like the Appalachian Trail.
Exactly, but I saw it as a way into the country and as a narrative current. I saw it as a metaphor. I could bring in tributaries as stories, history, and natural history. It would have a beginning, middle, and an end. It would be an understandable concept.
You describe early settlers and coal mines and the effect of each on the region and how adaptive the land has been. A river also changes a place and carves out its home as it pushes its way somewhere.
And it's just a simple acclivity in the rock but it's ancient. The other thing that intrigued me was that I thought, going into it, that I would find out if there was a river community. It turns out there's not. People don't know what's down around the next bend because they've been dealing with their own lives where they are. The people at one end don't know the people at the other end. You can drive it in five hours from one end to the other.
What if you had driven that path, sometimes hugging the river's edge and other times foraying into the towns and villages, are the roads as circuitous as the river?
Yes, if you tried to drive the actual path that would have been quite an undertaking and it would have taken days. Let's just say that you wanted to go from Boone, North Carolina to Fayetteville, West Virginia or Gauley Bridge. Just to get that far north would take you five hours on the main highway and you'd be crossing the New in a couple of places.
You rafted through a few Class IV and V rapids. Had you ever done that before?
No, but these were awfully good guides. I've done that trip that I write about probably three or four times since then and I've never been out of the boat. I've never seen anyone have too much trouble because these guides are really good at every level. I managed to convince my wife [producer and reporter Neenah Ellis] to do it and she had a great time.
I imagine that the vicissitudes of the water would be thrilling but incredibly frightening, too.
The Gauley is not my river but it comes into the New at the end and when the Gauley is up and running it is really something. I'm going to do that this year, I'm going to go down the Gauley in a raft but I'll know who I'm going with and I won't be taking any chances. The problem is that if you fall out and bang your head and you're stunned and can't move, you'll be swept away under cut rock and you won't come out. There is a death, usually every year, on the Gauley but only one on the New that I know of with the company that I went with. That's the trip I wrote about. I feel good as a journalist that I took that trip anonymously. I didn't try to meet anyone and it wasn't a NPR trip. I got to see this operation as a customer would. Since then I've become good friends with the owners and both of us are pleased that I did that on my own.
Had you seen it as a death-defying trip and with a stranger in whose hands you placed your life?
What's interesting to me is to take somebody who might have a high school education and when, all of a sudden, he or she has got six CEOs in their boat, big-time arrogant people, that person has the native ability to control the situation and understand the dynamics of it. If they need to knock somebody in the water, they will do it to get their attention because they have to get down the river themselves. That's the process they go through; they must be exhausted by the end of the season.
Yes, by the physical exertion and the psychological stress. Thankfully, though, there is such an industry there. How populous is the region?
It is not populous; there's hardly anybody there. I don't know the exact population in Fayetteville but it's not big. Rock climbing and rafting are a big industry there. There's a sandstone belt that runs along the top of the gorge there that's world famous and they have a lot of great climbers come from out West and other countries. You'll see them camped in the woods or sleeping in their cars. The climbers are more fanatical than the kayakers.
What did the people who were rooted to the land through a few generations do when the coal industry dwindled?
There's precious little industry left there but most people left the gorge and went north, that's the Appalachian migration route: Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit, and Chicago.
You got to know the land on this journey with more intimacy than a note-taking excursion would have yielded. How long were you on the river?
I took eleven months off. I went out first in April and just sort of wandered around Ashe County, which is one of the source counties, and made friends, looked around libraries, and climbed mountains. I would be out for three or four weeks and then I'd come back and take my canoe back down there and be on parts of the river. I kept on working my way north, some parts of the river I never canoed. I took long mountain bike rides. Some parts I just walked and some parts I was in five times because they were just interesting. I kept doing that all the way through October of that year.
Going home and going back out?
Yes, and doing research. There are two kinds of travel writing. One is where you really are trying to bring somebody into a place they don't know about. The other is where you sort of bumble through the experience as Bill Bryson did to great effect in his Appalachian Trail book [A Walk in the Woods]. He's a far funnier writer than I am and I just can't do that. I'd already done the piano book making every mistake and I didn't particularly want to be bumbling up and down the New River falling in the water.
Across white rapids...
I got a lot of help and that was a good way to meet people and hear stories.
You have an extensive bibliography in the back of the book including a few histories of Daniel Boone. What kind of a book did you want to write?
I wanted a book that would that would bounce if you dropped it. I wanted a book that was so small and so tidy that it would not intimidate anyone. You come to a good point, Daniel Boone is important here. One of my forebears must have followed Daniel Boone's enthusiasm from North Carolina into Kentucky. What can you say about Daniel Boone? I had just read all the biographies and thought about it and finally realized that one thing I hadn't known about him was that he was literate. I had never thought about it. I read that he always carried Gulliver's Travels with him. I knew what he was doing on his hunting trips so I was able to write the scene where he is with his dog up in the mountains with the snow and he's got a turkey hanging over the fire and he's reading Gulliver's Travels. He's trying to understand it and here he is in this country where the Indians, for example, have no understanding or concept of the fact that white men want to own land. It's so alien to them that it is like Gulliver's Travels for the Indians.
You mention that in every painting of Daniel Boone his dog is at attention and smelling something in the air beyond him. That speaks volumes about Daniel Boone's penchant for discovery and the frontier just ahead.
I was pleased with that detail because you can write page after page of details but it starts sounding like history. You don't need to know Daniel Boone eventually dies in Missouri and when; you need to see things. You just need a few things. I think books are really, in the end, about what you leave out.
The resonance of what you leave out?
Yes, I think so, and the mystery of it. If you leave things out then people can fill in their own thoughts. Writing to me is not hard but deciding what to leave out; that's the hardest part. It's what you leave out not what you put in.
|Photo credit: Michael Ivey|