Considering Amber and Joshua Niven’s creative interests and history with the Appalachian Trail, it’s clear they were destined to one day write a book about it.
The couple first met in 2015 at the Appalachian Trail Days Festival in Damascus, Va., which Joshua describes as an “annual college reunion” type of event where people who’ve hiked the 2,194-mile public footpath connect. He was there selling his coffee-table book, The Thru Project, featuring over 150 images that he made during his thru-hike in 2013.
“And Amber [who hiked most of the trail in 2014] had an artist collective and candle company, and she would go there and set up and sell her stuff,” Joshua says. “We got put across from each other in 2015, so we were selling our stuff, literally standing on the Appalachian Trail in Damascus, Va., and that’s where we met.”
Seven years later, the Nivens’ collaborative Discovering the Appalachian Trail: A Guide to the Trail’s Greatest Hikes, published June 1, reflects their shared passion for the route that crosses 14 states, six national parks and eight national forests. In turn, they hope to inspire others to venture outside and experience a resource that’s brought so much joy to their lives.
Currently based in Madison County outside Hot Springs, the Nivens and their two young children, River Axel and Indie Oaks, can see the Appalachian Trail ridgeline from their homestead. Such proximity is only fitting, seeing as the trail has been a throughline across their relationship.
“That’s what we enjoyed doing when we first started dating; we would go hiking and backpacking and camping,” Amber says. “And then when we started house hunting and came onto our property where we are now, it reminded us of being on the AT. The house is like an old cabin, so it kind of looks like a shelter. And then you’re looking into the woods, and there’s a little creek.”
And though Amber grew up in Gatlinburg, Tenn., with an avid outdoorsman father, and Joshua is from outside Charlotte, both of their families have roots in the Hot Springs area.
“That maybe cosmically drew us to this area,” Joshua says. “I just grew up in a little bit of a chaos, and I’m a deeply introspective person, so the only thing that really makes sense in the world other than my children and my wife is nature. When I’m out in the woods, everything makes sense.”
The couple had long discussed teaming up on a creative endeavor that united Amber’s writing with Joshua’s photography. Meanwhile, Joshua’s close friend Ryan Klinger, a designer for Eagles Nest Outfitters, regularly brought copies of The Thru Project with him to outdoor retailers and trade shows.
At one such event, Klinger shared the book with Falcon Guides, an imprint of Globe Pequot, publisher of Discovering the John Muir Trail: An Inspirational Guide to America’s Most Beautiful Hike (2018) and Discovering the Colorado Plateau: A Guide to the Region’s Hidden Wonders (2021). Impressed, the reps told Klinger that they were in search of people to undertake the third volume in the series, Discovering the Appalachian Trail. Klinger connected the parties, and the Nivens started work on the project in early 2019, right after they found out Amber was pregnant with their second child.
“I wanted to do more of an artistic book, and Amber did, too — not so much a guidebook,” Joshua says. “Falcon Guides was into us inserting as much of our creativity as we could into their format.”
The Nivens took a maximalist approach. Each of the 14 states on the trail receives its own chapter with a standout hike, animal, plant, shelter, trailblazer and personal narrative. Furthermore, the couple included a section on backpacking basics, a glossary of trail terms and an introductory chapter on the history of the trail and the mountains themselves.
“We also sprinkled in some little ‘Did you knows’ just to keep it interesting, because we wanted people to be able to flip to any page and become inspired — or start in the beginning and read it all the way to the end, like a thru-hike,” Amber says.
The people’s journey
In addition to conducting extensive research, Amber turned to the journal she kept while backpacking over 1,400 miles of the Appalachian Trail with her father and brother. A family emergency required the three to leave their trek while in Virginia, four months into their journey.
And while Joshua drew from 14 years of photographing the trail, he notes that camera technology has significantly evolved over that time, which prompted him to upgrade his gear and take better shots at various locations. These newer, sharper images were captured during a few trips with friends, as well as jaunts with Amber and their children.
With their roles for the book clearly defined, the Nivens say that the only detail they butted heads over was whether to start the book in Georgia or Maine. Amber wanted to begin at Mount Katahdin to honor her southbound experience. But Joshua pointed out that the majority of thru-hikers launch at Springer Mountain in Georgia. The couple ultimately settled on Georgia.
For those who pick up the colorful, information-packed, 337-page book, the Nivens hope that it expands people’s knowledge about the AT. Joshua notes that the trail was “made by the people, for the people” and is far more accessible than many assume, including for children and individuals in wheelchairs.
“It’s really a pilgrimage being out there and it’s a place where people in this modern day go to get their brain reconnected and their senses back in order,” he says. “People have been using it as a tool for a long time, and it has restructured my life and it’s restructured my wife’s life.”
To learn more, visit avl.mx/bqm.