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S.J. Dahlman talks life and new book

W. Kenneth Medley II • Feb 24, 2019 at 8:48 PM

Fast Fact Brief:

Dogs or Cats: Cats

Hobbies: Hiking, reading, good food and hanging out with people

Current Book: “First Man: The life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen

Favorite Food: Prime rib for a special occasion but day in and day out something Italian

Favorite local place to hike: Laurel Falls and Dennis Cove area

Simon Jacque “Jim” Dahlman, a professor of journalism at Milligan College recently published a new non-fiction book titled “A Familiar Wilderness” that chronicles his search for a place in his “adoptive home” of Southern Appalachia.

The book begins in Elizabethton, where the Wilderness Trail begins, the historical path that Daniel Boone blazed through the Cumberland Gap. This is where Dahlman began his journey in May 2013. He walked for 24 days and nearly 300 miles from Tennessee to Kentucky searching for a connection to home.

Dahlman writes in his new book, “Geographically speaking, Sycamore Shoals is not the Wilderness Road, but in a more historical sense is precisely where the route began, a piece in the frame of a historical jigsaw puzzle.”

The book continues to give a historical account of the Watauga Association and battles with Cherokee warriors during the 1770s. “A Familiar Wilderness” is a blend of history, observations of the terrain, both physical and psychological, with personal accounts and the sharing of interviews with the people still trying to carve a living out of Appalachia.

Dahlman said in an interview, “(I) grew up and sort of split my childhood between New York City and Tampa, Florida. “(I) Came to Milligan to do my undergraduate work and then went away for about 20 years to do other stuff.”

That other stuff included living in a working class town in England. While in England, Dahlman worked as an editor for a Christian magazine. When he and his wife returned to the U.S. he continued his career in journalism working at different Christian publications and writing a column for the Johnson City Press.

“I grew up wanting to be a journalist,” said Dahlman, “and when I got into high school my pastor said, ‘oh you should think about ministry.’ That is one reason I came to Milligan.”

It was a professor at Milligan College that led to his time in England. He returned to a job in Ohio. From there his career took he and his family to Colorado Springs, Colorado. While living in Colorado a professorship became vacant and that led Dahlman back to his alma mater.

The book grew out of a need for a project while attending courses at Goucher College and a stop in Cumberland Gap while on a trip. Dahlman decided that to gain a more intimate connection to the region he would walk the route that Boone did in the late 1700s to become more connected from Tennessee to Kentucky. He camped, met and spoke with the people along the walk to discover new things about Appalachian Americans.

“The previous night at the farmhouse I had leafed through a book that described accounts of other ‘massacres,’ including that of an entire family scalped within a mile of where I sat,” Dahlman writes in his book about walking Wallen Creek in Lee County, Virginia. “That word — massacre — is a given, I thought as I walked, but then I considered how other words might apply. Somewhere near where I stood, Native Americans killed five people, including two teenage boys whom they first tortured. They were sending a political message, and so in today’s argot they might be called terrorists.”

Dahlman tackles questions within him on paper at moments like this in the book. He goes on to pose the question, did the Native Americans viciously attack or were they defending their homeland?

“Those questions also make me wonder who can justifiably claim the land as their own after more than two centuries,” Dahlman writes in his book.

The book is finely woven accumulation of moving around, history and a personal account of walking through and observing culture. Dahlman captures the spirit of those living along the Wilderness Road while discovering home. Almost 240 years after Daniel Boone set out with settlers searching for a home, Dahlman retraced his steps with the same goal in mind.

“Home is where we do the bulk of our living. It is where we literally spend — or invest — our lives,” Dahlman writes, “whether or not we can point to a spot on a map. Home felt less about where, and more about what and who: What are we doing there, and who is with us to make it home?”

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