Local Author Talk: S.J. Dahlman

Local author, journalist, and Milligan professor S.J. Dahlman will speak at your Library on Thursday, October 3 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. about his book, “A Familiar Wilderness: Searching for Home on Daniel Boone Road, ” which traces his 300-mile hike on the Wilderness Road through Virginia and Kentucky. Dahlman will describe how and why he braided together the account of his journey with the history of the region and the stories of the people he met along the way.

We got to talk with Dahlman recently about his book, and his in-depth and thoughtful answers give a picture into his reflective and intentional storytelling.


JCPL: What motivated you to write this book?

Dahlman: Three reasons come to mind. First was a kind of journalistic curiosity about this region, my adopted home, sparked by a stop at the Cumberland Gap, where I noticed a sign for the Wilderness Road. I was immediately struck by the fact that someone still thought it was worth signposting. With a little research, I learned that the Wilderness Road, which grew from a path carved out by Daniel Boone in 1775, played a significant role in America’s development. At the time I was just starting a master of fine arts program in writing creative forms of nonfiction, and I needed a book project. This turned out to be a good fit. But the more I got into it, I found a very personal motivation. I’d lived in Johnson City for 13 years by that point, and in many ways it felt like home—but not quite, not deeply. And as I got to know the history of the region, mainly by learning the history of the road, I saw some parallels with earlier travelers who were also searching for home, and so it became an opportunity to explore both this region and the idea of finding and creating a new home and what actually makes a home. And I guess there was a fourth motivation: It just sounded like a fun adventure.


JCPL: What did you learn about this region on your trip? Anything that particularly surprised you or moved you?

Dahlman: There’s so much I either learned for the first time or, more commonly, had vague or superficial notions clarified or corrected. One is the hidden diversity of the region, diversity in how people think, the values they hold, the experiences they’ve lived through. We know that stereotypes get us only so far, but somehow there remains a lot of generalization about the region and people of Appalachia. I was also impressed by the generosity and hospitality I encountered. That was by far the rule. Imagine a total stranger with a backpack showing up at your door, asking if he can camp in your yard for the night. I don’t know how I’d respond to that, at least before this trip.

One other interesting and perhaps disturbing note is that I talked to several people who saw themselves as heirs of that mythic image of the self-reliant pioneer, those rugged individualists who settled this land, making their own way in the world and all that. And yet, the history is clear that the vast majority of settlers were anything but individualists. They intentionally formed into groups to travel the Wilderness Road, for one thing. Then when they settled in a place, one of the first things they did was form a kind of government or compact to help them live together and maintain scarce resources for the good of the community. It was a matter of survival: they needed each other.

I also came to realize more deeply how important the land is to people. I grew up in big cities—New York and Tampa—so it was a revelation to me how crucial land is, not just economically but psychologically and socially. For many people, this land—and not just the land they might personally own—provides a sense of identity.


JCPL: How did this journey affect you personally?

Dahlman: I think that I’ve gained a new understanding of what makes a home and, along with that, some resolution about this place as my home. Also, I think that I’ve been nudged to think in fresh ways about issues like the environment, the economics of the region, and the legacy of the early settlers. So I wonder if these little “nudges” will somehow change the trajectory of my life or my thinking over time. We’ll see.


JCPL: Did you have a favorite place along the way?

Dahlman: When I think about the places I enjoyed the most, I’m really thinking about the people there. My mind goes to Gate City, Duffield and Natural Tunnel State Park; to Jonesville and Rose Hill, Virginia; to Barbourville and Berea and Richmond, Kentucky; and Ft. Boonesborough State Park. But that’s because of the people I encountered there. I hope that comes through in the book. Having real people in the story was crucial from the start, and readers tell me it’s a highlight for them too. I talked with at least 50 people on the trip, and about half of them show up in the book.


JCPL: What have readers most appreciated about the book?

Dahlman: It’s been interesting to hear what different readers notice and what they take away from it. Folks from this region tell me they’re walking along with me, because they recognize the places I write about. People who don’t live here say they feel like they’re getting a fresh picture of the place. For some it’s the history. For others, it’s the descriptions of the places as they are now. Others really tune into the conversations and stories of people I met. Others enjoy the story of the hike itself. Others want to talk about my observations and reflections. Apparently it rings a few bells for people, and I’m grateful to hear that. I feel like I was given a gift that I’ve been able to share.


For more information on your library’s frequent local author talks, email Pam Murray or call 423-434-4454. And if you’re a local author interested in speaking at the library, click here. To learn about other library programs and services, visit www.jcpl.org, call 423-434-4450, or drop by the library at 100 West Millard Street. Like Johnson City Public Library on Facebook and Instagram to receive updates.

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