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Marshall couple imparts community as much as guidance in a new Appalachian Trail book

Joshua Niven and Amber Adams
Matt Peiken | BPR News
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Joshua Niven and Amber Adams Niven on the 27 acres they're homesteading outside of Marshall. A piece of the Appalachian Trail is in the far distance behind them.

In more ways than one, Amber Adams and Joshua Niven started on opposite ends of the trail.

Adams grew up in a tight family rooted in faith. Niven said his parents divorced when he was 3 and he got himself baptized at 14. Adams said she realized how relatively sheltered her upbringing was when she learned of Niven’s.

“It was a big eye-opener. I guess I lived under a rock for a while,” Adams said. “I know people grow up like that, but it just hit home knowing someone that had a completely different background than me, and mine is just so rare.”

Joshua Niven Photography
Joshua Niven (2013)
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The Appalachian Trail leading through Maine's backcountry.

On the trail that brought them together—the trail now at the center of their creative lives—Adams started at the northern tip, in Maine, and Niven began at the southern trailhead, in Georgia.

“Getting invited to go on the trail for the first time when I was 18 or 19 years old, I experienced autonomy and freedom,” Niven said. “So when I got brought back to nature and experienced the AT for a month by myself with my friends, it created a passion for the wilderness that had kinda been removed from me for years because of my upbringing.”

Niven conquered all 2190 miles of the trail in 2013. The following year, Adams hiked with family into Virginia before ending their journey. The couple first met in 2015 at the annual Appalachian Trail Days Festival, in Damascus, Va.

They now live with their two young children on 27 acres outside of Marshall. From a patch he graded himself, where they will build their log cabin, Niven can point across the mountains to a slice of the Appalachian Trail.

The couple spent much of the pandemic collaborating on a new guidebook titled “Discovering the Appalachian Trail.” Niven and Adams are signing copies June 21 at Malaprop’s Books in Asheville and throwing a book launch party Aug. 13 at Big Pillow Brewing in Hot Springs.

“She’s always been kinda nervous about us working on stuff because we do clash a bit,” Niven said. “But I’m a serial optimist and I just assume we’re gonna be perfect no matter what we do.”

“But we made a deal,” Adams reminded him. “Yours is the photos—you do the visual, I do the words—so we had our own places where we could control.”

Joshua Niven Photography
Joshua Niven (2014)
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Dragons Tooth, Mile 702.1 northbound on the A.T.

Hundreds of photos Niven shot along his original through-hike are the foundation of the book. Adams wanted to give their book a distinct personality through their own narratives and stories from other hikers.

“We really wanted to capture the whole spirit of the AT. We didn’t want to just do a guidebook where a lot of people have technical hikes,” Adams said. “We wanted to make sure the community was featured in it in some form or fashion, so we spent a lot of time brainstorming on how we were going to do that.”

“So much of what the Appalachian Trail is is community,” Niven said. “A huge part of what we were trying to display to people is that most of the takeaways people have after their through hike is less to do with being in the wilderness and more to do with connections to people they made along the way.”

Niven said his paths to and along the trail came with trauma. He and other essayists in the guidebook wrote about the healing nature of their hikes. Nivens said, since his hike, his relationships with his parents have improved and he has built a thriving print shop, specializing in giclée prints for other artists and photographers.

Joshua Niven Photography
Joshua Niven (2014)
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Nighttime at McAfee Knob viewing Tinker Cliffs, Mile 714.2 northbound

“I’m a result of a dose of mushrooms, to be honest with you. That’s how I got to trail, that’s how I refound my skateboard, that’s how I decided to live a life, really,” Niven said. “Psychedelics got me there in a lot of ways, but I was broken in the brain. A couple experiences on psilocybin broke me through, killed my ego and helped me kind of decide to do something with my life.”

In their book research and prep, Niven and Adams returned by camper to portions of the trail to fill in gaps of Niven’s photography—this time with better technology—and inform their narrative. They promise their children, now ages 3 and not quite 1—will eventually follow in their steps on trail – even if right now, they’re being carried in backpacks.

“They love hiking, but they like riding,” Adams said.

The couple are already planning guidebooks that take deeper dives into specific sections of the Appalachian Trail.