A Q&A with the Founders of Blue Ridge Outdoors
Each of us seeks out the mountains and the waters of the Blue Ridge for a different reason. Whether we’re searching for solitude or community, a challenge or peace of mind, the outdoors offers a place to individually and collectively connect with something larger than ourselves.
For 25 years, it has been Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine’s mission to provide inspiring stories from the outdoors for free. What started out as a guide to locally exploring the area surrounding Charlottesville, Va., grew to cover the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions. For our anniversary issue, we talked with BRO founders John Blackburn and Greg Easley about the early days of the magazine and the evolution of outdoor recreation over the last quarter century.
BRO: In the editor’s note in the premier issue, you described Blue Ridge Outdoors as a “nudge” for people to get outside in the Charlottesville, Va., area. Can you talk about the original inspiration for starting the publication and what you saw as its role in the community?
Blackburn: At that time there just wasn’t much good information out there. At least, it wasn’t easy to find for the generalist. There were some fairly stale guidebooks around, and insiders within certain sports shared information—climbers shared beta with other climbers, fly fishers shared good spots with others inside their cliques. We saw a need for a multisport guide. As editor, once we launched it as an ad-supported free magazine, I tried to make it somewhat educational. I was a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) instructor at the time and made sure to advance Leave No Trace principles whenever I could.
I also used to rail against freeze-dried food—which people seemed to think was okay, even though it was/is gross and expensive—so I made creative backcountry cooking a part of those early issues, including a Name-O-Matic thing (ripped off from Spy magazine, I think) to come up with funny names for dishes.
Easley: I was very surprised that the area, which is very rich in outdoor recreational options, had almost no information that we could find on what you could do back then. This was just before the internet emerged as a tool everyone used, and there were no publications beyond some hiking guides. There was nothing covering mountain bike trails, swimming holes, bouldering, etc. So, we wanted to fill that void. Plus, we needed something to do that summer!
BRO: Blue Ridge Outdoors started as a collaboration between you two in 1995. Can you talk about those early days, how you two were connected, and how you went about sharing your idea?
Easley:We were grad-school roommates in an epic A-frame house in the woods in Ivy, but we also knew each other as undergrads. I had written some articles for Hawes Spencer, an old friend from Richmond who was the founder and publisher of C-VILLE Weekly. So, we went to him with a pitch—we would write the guide, and he would publish it. I think we may have grossly undercharged him, as he instantly said yes.
Blackburn:Maybe at one point we thought we’d self-publish a stand-alone guidebook and sell it through outdoors shops and bookstores, but that looked like too much work.
BRO: Blue Ridge Outdoors is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Is that something you pictured happening when you first started the publication?
Easley: I’m blown away that the publication is still going! Not that this is shocking given the setting and need for it, but I moved north in 1995 and hadn’t spent much time back in the area.
Blackburn: 25 years ago, I couldn’t imagine any of this. I’m just happy that it’s going strong and better than ever.
BRO: In the first issue, you all discussed “surfing the internet” as a new technology that could help connect people with outdoor resources. With the internet now a major part of our everyday life, in what other ways have you seen the outdoor industry change or evolve over the last 25 years?
Easley: To me it’s clear that the internet has helped ignite interest in outdoor activities across the spectrum. More information translates into more accessibility. And in general, this is a great thing, as it leads to more people caring about the environment and about enjoying and preserving the natural resources that are around us.
Blackburn: I still can’t get over how funny it is that I was so wowed by a website that offered up 15 links! And those long, clunky URLs. It’s also funny that it didn’t occur to us for long time that the magazine itself could be online.
BRO: What have you all been up to since founding Blue Ridge Outdoors?
Blackburn: My career path has been pretty crooked, winding through several different fields, including the restaurant business and higher ed fundraising. I recently found my way to the Nature Conservancy at the Virginia Chapter, based in Charlottesville, and I couldn’t be happier to advance the great work of this organization, helping to protect the Virginia landscapes I love so much.
Easley: I left publishing and got pulled into the internet vortex in the mid-90s (dotcom 1.0). I founded several companies in NYC that developed video games and apps and more recently have shifted to developing products that marry hardware with software, including specialized cameras and smart home products. On the recreational side I am an avid snowboarder, surfer, and biker. My biggest commitment these days is to gravel riding, which is world class where I live in the northeast. I previously climbed a good amount all over the U.S. but transitioned out of that 20 years ago when I became a surfing addict.
BRO: What’s your go-to outdoor recreation spot and activity in the Blue Ridge, and do you have any favorite memories from recreating in the region?
Blackburn: Fly fishing the Jackson River and Buffalo Creek, paddling the James and Maury Rivers, hiking The Priest. My current obsession is the Clinch River in southwest Virginia, which has a mind-blowing biodiversity of rare fish and mussels. My favorite memories are probably cooking and trading stories around a campfire with friends after a long day of fly fishing and the many times I would get my kids to play hooky from school. We’d go out to Snowshoe for a day of skiing, and we’d have the place to ourselves.
Easley: I have fond memories climbing at Seneca Rocks and also swimming at various watering holes and quarries around C’ville, including some that were off the grid, so to speak.