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A few years ago, National Public Radio journalist Noah Adams knew he wanted to write a book about Appalachia. But like the long, winding river he ultimately chronicled in Far Appalachia: Following the New River North, he took a while to reach his destination.
Adams, a co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, knew he didn’t want to publish a Paul Theroux-style travelogue in which he complained about the annoyances of traveling. He also knew he didn’t want to pen a comic romp à la Bill Bryson; Adams had already done a self-deprecating turn in Piano Lessons, his 1996 account of his efforts to learn to play the piano in his 50s. And he didn’t want to write a book in which his journey ledinevitablyto a moment of inner growth.
After encountering a couple of dead ends, Adams came up with the idea of following the New River from its source, in North Carolina, to its mouth, in West Virginia. “I had crossed it on interstates at three places, but you can’t see it below you,” he says. “So I began thinking, What’s down there?” Adams eventually took off 11 months from NPR to travel the river and the adjacent country and to read extensively about Appalachian history. Traveling by foot, boat, bicycle, plane, and raft, Adams collected anecdotes and observations. In the book, he interweaves these vignettes with the history of the places he visited, fashioning an episodic biography of the region.
Technically, Adams grew up in Appalachia, but he says that his heavily industrial hometown of Ashland, Ky., was “just like Gary, Ind., not a sleepy Ohio River village.” In 1971, he joined a public-radio station in Lexington, Ky., as a volunteer. He hosted a progressive-rock show from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., went to sleep at 3 a.m., and headed off to his construction job at 6 a.m. “The first time I ever heard [All Things Considered], I was riding home from a construction job” with a co-worker, he recalls. “I said, ‘Don’t tell the other guys I listen to this.’” A few years later, Adams came to Washington to work for NPR, where he’s been ever since.
As Adams traveled the New River, he found himself drawn to Appalachia’s industrial historyits engineering triumphs, its human tragedy, and its environmental damagewhich has been followed in recent years by an unexpected ecological recovery. “Much of the 300 miles of the river are far wilder than they were 20 years ago and vastly different from what they were a century ago,” he says. He points to the book’s cover, which features a lush river valley crossed by a classic steel-girder bridge. “If you saw this scene in the ’50s, you’d see coal mines and coke ovens everywhere. Now you can go along the river and not know what had happened [there].
“I see more people happy to be in Appalachia,” he continues. “When you go to a school like Radford University [in Radford, Va.] or Appalachian State [in Boone, N.C.], it’s boomingfull of vibrant kids. [ASU’s] mascot is a mountaineer; they’re proud to be from Appalachia. They don’t want to go away and hide where they’re from or hide their accent. And they’re coming into a far more accepting world than it was 20 or 30 years ago.” Louis Jacobson
Noah Adams will discuss Far Appalachia at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at Politics & Prose. For more information, call (202) 364-1919.