Making Memories

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The Faces and Places of 25 Years of Adventure

About a decade ago, we adopted the motto “Go Outside and Play,” but really, inspiring adventures in the wild has been the magazine’s mission all along. And while putting together hundreds of issues about exploring the mountains for the past 25 years has certainly been fun, it’s also taken a lot of hard work from a long list of dedicated folks. To spotlight some of the people that’ve made it happen, we asked 25 staff members and contributors from the past and present to share a favorite memory from their time with Blue Ridge Outdoors. 

Blake DeMaso
President

Just months after purchasing the magazine, I went with Jedd [Ferris], Travis [Searcy], our art director at the time, and Charles [Leonard], an account executive, to Trail Days in Damascus for the first time. We didn’t know what to expect, and we also didn’t know each other that well, but we had an incredible weekend that I will never forget. We met so many great people coming off the trail and got to hear their stories as well as participate in some of the traditions such as the parade, water balloon fight, and BBQ at the firehouse. We continued to go back each year, and as time went on, we involved our families and kids and brought more staff down to experience Trail Days. 

Jedd Ferris
Editor-in-Chief

When I was hired as a staff writer in 2003, one of my first big assignments was a cover story called “Ferris’ Week Off.” I spent seven full days getting fully acquainted with the Blue Ridge—backpacking in Shenandoah, riding Canaan, climbing Great Falls, and even hang gliding down near Lynchburg. Altogether it was an unforgettable experience that gave me an enduring appreciation for these mountains and this magazine. 

Leah Woody
Publisher

Back when we were all a bit younger and had a few less kids, almost the whole staff would attend festivals across the region like FloydFest, Festy, and Trail Days. You learn the most about your co-workers when you are all camped out in the woods living the festival life for a few days. 

Every year the Festival Guide is one of my favorites to dive into. It was such a heartbreaking moment when we realized that the Festival Guide wouldn’t be happening this year, but not nearly as heartbreaking as realizing all of the amazing festivals would be silent for summer 2020.

Martha Evans, Grace DeMaso, Lauren Worth, Hannah Cooper, and Melissa Gessler

Lauren Worth
Creative Director

BRO covers so much about the outdoors, from the wins to the losses, and everything in between. It’s taught me a lot about how to have an appreciation for the outdoors, but also for the people who love the outdoors and how we can come together. 

Melissa Gessler
Business Manager

During my 11 years with BRO, we have experienced everything there is to experience: births, deaths, marriages, graduations, booms and busts, excitement in new faces, and tears at goodbyes. This is a small, tight-knit group that works their collective ass off, puts their whole heart in, and truly defines what it is to be a family. I couldn’t find a better one out there.

Katie Hartwell
Associate Publisher

Working with a group of people states apart, the times that we get together as a team are my favorite memories. From flying in a tiny airplane together, hiking a mountain, singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a party bus, or racing to pitch a tent, this is the best group ever. I have always loved the outdoors, but I have learned a lot more about how to preserve the trails that I explore during my time with Blue Ridge Outdoors. 

Malee Ott, Shannon McGowan, Ellen Kanzinger, Will Harlan

Ellen Kanzinger
Travel Editor

I took a wilderness survival class with former editor Will Harlan. We spent 36 hours one January weekend freezing our butts off in the cold rain while learning how to build fires and shelters in any condition. For the final exercise, we had to fully submerge ourselves in a frigid creek and then build a fire before hypothermia set in. I have never been so cold in my life. But when I finally got my fire going, I felt like I could take on anything. 

Martha Evans
Senior Account Executive

My very first experience with Blue Ridge Outdoors was 17 years ago. I found the magazine on a stand somewhere and it was the annual swimming holes issue. After reading it cover to cover, I set out to discover some of the best swimming holes I’ve ever seen. The magazine has been such an amazing part of my life ever since, inspiring interest and appreciation for the outdoor lifestyle and recreation, which constantly leads me to so many wonderful new adventures and so many new people all over the world. 

Taylor Leal
Account Executive

I’m a firm believer in what we execute each month at BRO. I feel like the more nature lovers, tree huggers, and outdoor enthusiasts we have, the more advocates and protectors we will have for our outdoor spaces. Sure, there are plenty of economic benefits to outdoor recreation, but the greatest treasure of all is that they exist. I’d sure love to keep them around for future generations to enjoy. 

I’m thankful for our authentic voice in highlighting the many treasures we have here in the Blue Ridge, and I’m happy to work with a group of folks who make it our mission to showcase and protect those places we love.

Hannah Cooper
Former Account Executive

My favorite memory was doing the Ragnar—a 24-hour running relay race in Richmond—with people from the office. It was type two fun (miserable while you’re doing it, but fun to remember). 

Shannon McGowan
Digital Content Coordinator

Working on a story called Reeling and Healing, I went to Syria, Va., and was able to meet the incredible men from Reel Recovery, a program that gets men living with cancer out for a fly fishing retreat. Each participant is teamed up with a fly fishing guide and is given the chance to connect with each other through empowering conversations where they share their stories and experiences with cancer. I was incredibly moved by how openly each man explained to me how Reel Recovery has provided them with a beautiful sense of community and support. The bonds formed after a few days were so clear and had me wiping tears from my eyes all day. 

Craig Snodgrass
Web Director

Shannon tried to teach me how to roll a kayak. She probably should have taught me how to swim first. If I hadn’t been at BRO for so long, I probably never would have had the opportunity or inclination to try such a thing.

Mason Adams, Charles Leonard, Jedd Ferris, Kim Dinan, Graham Averill

Mason Adams
Contributing Reporter

As a reporter who’s covered mountain communities in the Blue Ridge for nearly 20 years, I’m most struck by how transformative Blue Ridge Outdoors’ “Adventure Towns” concept has proven for local economies. Many towns that once relied on coal, the railroad, or another historically dominant industry are trying to find new paths forward. Their solutions vary, but outdoor recreation has become a common denominator. The places that have identified their outdoor assets and then marketed them have attracted entrepreneurs from a surprisingly wide range of businesses—everything from outfitters to restaurants and breweries. Even companies in unrelated sectors, such as tech and manufacturing, are investing in these places because they want access to outdoor adventure for their employees. That’s not just beneficial. It’s transformative.

Kim Dinan
Contributing Reporter and Daily News Writer

What stands out to me are some of the conversations I had with park staff when reporting on the 1996 deaths of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans in Shenandoah National Park. Speaking with them really drove home how much has changed about being outdoors over the years, since this tragedy—and the park’s response to it—happened before cell phones and social media. 

Will Harlan
Senior Editor and former Editor-in-Chief

I thought I was a tough, rugged outdoorsy dude—until I spent a few days homeless on the streets for a feature story. Going homeless taught me some cold, hard truths about the outdoors. Homeless folks are the ultimate outdoor athletes. Without any fancy gear, they hike for miles, forage for food, and camp out every night in even the harshest conditions. Over a half-million Americans sleep on the streets or in shelters each night. The least I could do was step inside their worn shoes for a few days. But my homeless journey was artificial. Afterward, I could go home to a stocked fridge and comfy bed. For the homeless folks I met, there was no finish line.

Steven McBride
Contributing Photographer

Although every shoot I’ve done for BRO has been memorable and adventurous, but I do have one that sails above the others. For a biking cover story (September 2012), we traveled up to Beech Mountain, N.C., and after some time personally “scouting” every trail, (yes, on my bike), we got down to shooting images on several singletrack trails, as well as downhill runs. 

Toward the end of the shoot, we headed over to the big obstacle section, where I was immediately schooled on the finer points of aerial acrobatics. It was at this point that I retired my Cannondale for the day. I knew my biking limits, and this was way, way beyond them. Nonetheless, shooting these guys sailing directly over my head as I photographed them was a thrill enough.  

Malee Oot
Contributing Writer

The last time I covered Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park it was the dead of winter. Besides my hound dog, curled up in the backseat of my Subaru, I didn’t see a soul as I drove the ice-glazed park road. Suddenly, I came around a lazy bend and there was Fabio, grazing beside the road. Arguably the park’s most iconic resident, Fabio is just one of the wild ponies roaming the park, named for his luxuriant flaxen mane. I couldn’t believe my luck—and Fabio seemed to sense that I was admiring him. Preening, he strutted into the middle of the road and posed grandly as the winter wind tousled his golden hair. Then, he sauntered right up to my car, and began licking my salt-streaked Subaru. Out of nowhere, another pony appeared and joined Fabio, both of them savoring the hood of my mineral-fortified vehicle. Before I knew it, I was stuck, and for the next few minutes, I was pinned along the roadside by salt-crazed wild ponies.

Chris Gragtmans
Contributing Writer and Pro Paddler

Writing for BRO was a watershed experience for me both personally and professionally. It afforded me the income and freedom to travel and compete full-time as a professional whitewater kayaker and paddleboarder for five years. What an incredible phase of life, paddling on every continent except Antarctica, falling asleep under the stars 100+ nights a year, competing with the best in the world, and immersing myself in the most inspiring natural settings. 

There are too many unforgettable moments to list when it comes to assignments, but a really special opportunity was time spent with the cancer survivor nonprofit First Descents. The organization enables young survivors to overcome their diagnosis by fostering fellowship, confidence, and healing through outdoor sport. It seems there’s no greater therapist than Mother Nature, and I’ll never forget the times that we shared on the river and around the campfire.

Graham Averill
Former Staff Writer and Editor

I’ll never forget sitting in the dark on the edge of Quantico in Virginia looking into the edge of a dense forest with night vision goggles. I was with a group of guys convinced Bigfoot was alive and well in the Southern Appalachians. Now that was a fun story.

Steven McBride, Craig Snodgrass, Katie Hartwell, Tom Daly, Doug Schnitzpahn

Marcus Wohlsen
Former Staff Writer

I was just getting my start as a writer in the early 2000s. I knew I wanted to write, and I knew I wanted to be outside. I pitched some stories, and suddenly I was doing both every day. Too quickly, the next step in my life came along, and the time was approaching for me to leave western North Carolina. But I still had so much to do! One thing you learn covering the outdoors in the Southern Appalachians is that you will never exhaust the possibilities. So I took on one last mega-assignment: I would try to do everything.

I climbed Looking Glass Rock. I paddled the French Broad. I rode Pisgah singletrack. But the one thing above all—literally—I will never forget was the moment my guide unclipped the carabiner connecting our hang glider to the ultra-light, and we were flying free over Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. Everything was silent, and the landscape I loved rolled out to the horizon. 

Jess Daddio
Former Travel Editor

In the spring of 2017, I pitched a bikepacking-packrafting story in tandem with my friend Andy at New River Bikes in Fayetteville, W.Va. Together with my friend Annie, the three of us pedaled over 100 miles of rugged West Virginia terrain on 70-pound rigid frame bikes. It was hard and it rained almost the entire time (because, West Virginia). There were questionable “roads,” flooded rivers, punishing hike-a-bikes, mismatched paddle parts, new-to-me chafing, and stiff lake headwinds, but we did it and still even like each other and are riding bikes to this day.

Dave Stallard
Contributor and Curator of monthly online music feature Trail Mix

Fifteen years ago, I grabbed my phone and dialed up Darrell Scott, one of my songwriting heroes, for my first profile in the magazine. I was a nervous wreck. I taught middle school and didn’t figure myself a music writer! Since then, I have gone on to chat with scores of incredible musicians and feature a few thousand songs over more than ten years of curating Trail Mix. For a music junkie like me, this is an incredible gig, and I count myself lucky to have been a part of the BRO crew for as long as I have. 

Tom Daly
Former Account executive and longtime contributing photographer

One of my favorite BRO memories was photographing the inaugural “Green Guide” cover story back in Spring of 2008.  Not only was it exciting to be on the forefront of the “Green” movement, but the story on mountaintop removal and how the coal industry has ravaged West Virginia was very eye opening to me.  

Bettina Freese 
Contributor and Biking Columnist

Every time I pedal into the woods, increase my heart rate, and start navigating a new trail, or even an old trail, the stories start rolling. I love that I have BRO as a megaphone for my excitement! I have shared stories of naked rides where we thought we were in the backwoods only to learn…no. I have shared my heartbreaks, my wounds, my learning curve, and the joy of teaching kids and newbies. Then I added the trials and triumphs from the trails to the river, where my new learning curves began. Thank you all for enjoying my rides with me!

Doug Schnitzspahn
Gear Editor and Editor-in-Chief of BRO’s sister publication Elevation Outdoors

We took a hike with the whole Blue Ridge Outdoors and Elevation Outdoors staff near the BRO home office in Charlottesville, at Mint Springs Park and came to a tree simply marked “The Old Red Oak.” I hugged it, a big embrace that only reached halfway around the trunk. It was both a sign of respect for this rare, recognized giant that I would not see here in high, dry Colorado, but also a hope that us treehuggers can continue to learn from the forests, from an intelligence deeper and older than our own, and convince others just how important trees and the natural world are to our own continued existence and happiness. 

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