From radio waves to river waves

This is just a book about a river...."

Hah! Don't fall for the aw-shucks disclaimer in the preface of Noah Adams's new book - even if it is technically accurate.

The understated host of NPR's "All Things Considered" recently took a year's leave to explore Appalachia's little-known New River, and his resulting "Far Appalachia" is an enchanting portrait of one of America's most depressed regions.

During his sabbatical, Adams poked into nearly every eddy and backwater of the New River watershed, from its source on a North Carolina mountaintop to the point - 350 miles downstream, in West Virginia - where it pours into another equally obscure river.

Both sides of Adams's family immigrated to the region in the 1800s - and as Adams hikes, bikes, canoes, and occasionally tumbles through the New's world-class rapids in a rubber raft, he comes across as a man completely at home.

"Tell me of something better," he challenges, "than coffee in the morning on the river when the sun's come over the ridge and there's a scrim of white fog across the water."

James Dickey's "Deliverance" might easily have been set in New River country, with its foaming cataracts, fiddling festivals, hound dogs, and hillbillies.

One of Adams's guides cautiously admits to being a "Melungeon" - a descendant of Portuguese shipwreck survivors who are said to have inhabited the highest, deepest Appalachians for an uncertain number of centuries. Adams weaves a hypnotic spell with a constant stream of such fascinating tidbits about the area's sociology, ecology, and history.

Many recall Mary Draper Ingles - the 23-year-old, pregnant pioneer woman abducted in 1755 by a band of Shawnee, who escaped and bushwhacked through 500 miles of hostile country to get back home. But how many know that "home" was on the New River, where she operated a ferry - at present-day Ingles Ferry, Va. - until her death at the age of 83?

Adams eulogizes the "golden century," the 100 years between the frontier violence and the coming of the coal industry, when the populace was self-reliant. "They grew their food, they hunted, they made most of what they needed, and for cash money for the rest they'd brew up whiskey to sell, or float a raft of logs down the river to a mill town."

The advent of the mines and the railroads brought this idyll to a coal-fired end. Adams asks the director of West Virginia's Natural Resources Department if the state might not have been better off if coal had never been discovered, and, although Adams rarely editorializes, it's clear that he agrees with the official's surprising, on-the-record response: "Probably so."

But there is much more casual goodwill than controversy here. A man remembers the stranger who stopped to help the night his trailer hitch broke on a mountain curve. "He let me sleep on [his] couch and in the morning while I was eating the breakfast his wife fixed he was out in the driveway with his welding rig."

In Fayette, West Virginia, Adams notes that "the most money you can put into a parking meter on courthouse square is a dime," while out by the airport a plaintive sign reads, "Rides $5."

But will it last? In this town where, within memory, there have been public hangings on the courthouse lawn, Adams sees "techno-rad kayakers and rock climbers and mountain bikers roll into town on the weekends, car and truck roofs festooned with gear."

Adams's love for the region is contagious. We mourn the loss of the once-enormous chestnut forests, destroyed by a fungus that originally entered New York harbor in 1904.

And we marvel at Adams's facile biochemical explanation of the fall turnover - the sudden moment each autumn when the New (and other rivers) "flip," changing color from brown to green.

"Far Appalachia" is a delightful, fluid excursion that reads as effortlessly as water seeks its own level, and which, like flowing water, leaves one to ponder life's greater profundities.

Brad Newsham is a writer in Oakland, Calif. His most recent book is 'Take Me With You: A Round-the-World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home' (Travelers' Tales).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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