Lees-McRae College won last year’s Top Adventure Schools Contest, and it has a well-earned reputation for being a leader in outdoor learning and adventure. This year, they asked Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine president Blake DeMaso to deliver the keynote address. DeMaso spoke last Saturday in Banner Elk, N.c., to the Lees McRae College’s class of 2019 graduates.

DeMaso first began pondering lofty speech themes while knee-deep in his favorite trout stream. But when he ran his ideas by his teenage daughters, they weren’t impressed. So he decided to stick with what he knew best: the outdoors.

In his speech, DeMaso recounted a downhill mountain bike ride that went horribly wrong; he ended up landing on a ”perfectly placed pointy rock” and breaking three ribs.

“The key to failure is to not let it beat you, “ DeMaso said. “Life will throw you a curveball or a pointy rock right when you least expect it. Take the time to understand what you need to do differently, why that failure occurred, and then get up and try again.”

DeMaso’s speech focused on finding adventure, which was especially appropriate for Lees-McRae graduates.

Adventure isn’t just about doing things like rock climbing, skiing, or hiking,” DeMaso told the graduates. “Life is one big adventure. Adventure is getting that first apartment, first job, or first love.”

He encouraged graduates to take risks every day.

“Being bold and putting yourself in uncomfortable and sometimes risky situations is the formula for success. Those calculated risks are what separates the people who are just going through the paces of life from the people who pioneer new businesses, help causes, and change their communities. They influence people and ultimately change the world.”

The full text of his speech appears below, along with photos from the commencement address and graduation. Congratulations to this year’s Lees-McRae graduates and all of the 2019 graduates across the region.

Find Your Adventure

I am very honored to be here. I have been extremely excited for this day and I started preparations for this speech from the moment I received the invitation to speak.

I worked tirelessly on what I was going to say and then one day it came to me while I was outside knee-deep in my favorite trout stream. I made a beeline back home and locked myself in my bathroom—my only getaway spot in our busy house—and wrote the opening paragraph. I looked back over it, and it was the most profound thing that I have ever written.

The title of the speech was “The Journey.” Oh, I was going to blow all of you away with this speech. Beaming with pride, I entered the kitchen where my wife and two teenage daughters were, and I proclaimed, “I’ve got it.”

“What, dad?”

“The opening of my speech!”

Now, my wife and kids couldn’t be prouder of their dad and the opportunity to give a commencement address to this incredible group of graduates. They jumped at the chance to hear what I had come up with.

I launched into the opening of the speech, proclaiming with pride, that the title was “The Journey.” I got two sentences in and looked up to expect tears in their eyes, so blown away about the words that I had pieced together. As I looked over them, I was taken back. My wife was slightly shaking her head, and my 17-year-old daughter was rolling her eyes. I said, “What? What is the matter?”

“Daaaad, don’t you know that the show The Bachelor ruined the word ‘Journey?’”

What?

I went back to my bathroom defeated, with my tail between my legs. For days it was reported that I was walking around looking down and shaking my head, mumbling about how some dumb reality TV show just ruined my speech.

So I decided to focus on what I know the best: the outdoors.

Two years ago, Lees-McRae won the top adventure school award given to them as voted on by the readers of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine. With over a half million votes, you guys beat out state universities like West Virginia University, Virginia Tech, and University of Tennessee. You guys were the first small school to ever take the title of Top Adventure School in its 8 year history.

As graduates here today, you are already in a great position for whatever your future holds, because as a school, you have embraced adventure.

Adventure isn’t just about doing things like rock climbing, skiing, or hiking. Life is one big adventure. Adventure is getting that first apartment, first job, or first love. Adventure is leaving friends and family and starting in a new town where you don’t know anyone. And the adventures never stop. They continue through life creating relationships and family.

When I visited Lees-McRae back in early April, I was blown away by the students, staff, and administration. When I first saw the school motto pulling into campus—

In the Mountains, Of the Mountains, For the Mountains—I felt right at home. What other school has a beautiful mountain stream running right through the middle of campus?

The diverse curriculum embodies the way that you as graduates and the school have embraced adventure. Classes that cover topics like outdoor recreation management, nursing, and pre-veterinarian are not for the faint of heart. Saving a wild animal’s life, much less a human’s, requires guts. Adventure runs deep at this school and translates into your athletics programs. Both traditional and non-traditional sports are enjoyed at this school. Congratulations to all of you who have participated in any of the sporting programs, and a special congratulations to the softball team for winning the Conference Carolina Championships!

What I witnessed while visiting, and coming back here this weekend, is amazing: a dog-friendly, environmentally conscious school, with a wide curriculum, that attracts students from all over the country, not to mention your wildlife rehabilitation center on campus, as well as a diverse mix of on-campus activities and athletic programs. Lees-McRae is truly a special place embraced in these beautiful mountains.

I am sure many of you are ready, excited, and yes, nervous about moving on to your next adventure. You might be ready to put Lees-McRae and Banner Elk in your rearview mirror and move on. I would be willing to bet that almost all of you will later look back on your time here as special and long to be back in the safety of these mountains. Just remember that your adventures began here, and you are well equipped to take what you have learned here and go out into the world and make yourself, your families, and this school, proud.

I looked up the definition of adventure, and I have to say, I had a really good laugh. The definition of adventure is an exciting experience that is typically a bold, sometimes risky, undertaking.

I am not sure about you…but I call that life.

There is nothing that is safe in life. Going out on your own requires you to be bold and take risks every day. Yes, it can be scary, but the rewards are big.

Being bold and putting yourself in uncomfortable and sometimes risky situations is the formula for success.

Those calculated risks are what separates the people who are just going through the paces of life from the people who pioneer new businesses, help causes and change their communities. They influence people and ultimately change the world.


With adventure comes failure. It’s natural that if you are taking a risk, you aren’t always going to succeed. The key to failure is to not let it beat you, and most importantly, don’t panic. Take the time to understand what you need to do differently, why that failure occurred, and then get up and try again.

There was this one time, as a fairly new business owner, that some of my co-workers at the magazine and I were invited to go on this epic downhill mountain biking course. Now downhill bikes are completely different than your average mountain bike. It is basically a motorcycle with no engine where you hurl yourself straight down a mountain, through the woods, narrowly missing trees, while going over jumps and around berms. This is not your everyday bike ride.

As we were gearing up with full helmets and body armor, I reminded the guide that while, yes, we are outdoorsy people from an outdoorsy magazine, none of us have ever done this before. See, when we go out on these trips, the guides always want to take us on the biggest adventure, wanting to give us the “real experience.” So we take off, and I was gripping the handle bars for dear life. As time went on, I embraced it, and I was feeling good about my abilities on the course while my co-workers about 10 years younger than me were struggling. We came to a stop so everyone could catch up, and when we pushed off again, I rode second behind the guide, looking back to my friends and exclaiming, “Hate that an old man like me has to show you guys up!”

This was not smart.

As I went around the first turn, the front tire got caught up on a rock, and I went straight over the handlebars, flying down the side of the mountain through the air. In the air, I reflected on how dumb it was to exclaim something like that to my co-workers and how I probably deserved my fate. I landed on my side in the only place there was no body armor on this splendidly chiseled pointy rock that was placed perfectly in my landing zone. It knocked the wind out of me, and as I laid there in the middle of

nowhere, with no medical attention around, with three broken ribs, I reflected on this failed adventure. I had no choice but to get up, dust myself off, and finish the painful ride down the mountain.

Life is like that sometimes. Your adventures aren’t always going to be successful. Sometimes, just when you think that everything is going great, you say something dumb and end up with three broken ribs. You have to respect the adventure, have fun, enjoy it, don’t get too cocky, and don’t get too comfortable. Life will throw you a curveball or a pointy rock right when you least expect it, and you are going to have no choice but to not let it defeat you, brush yourself off, and continue on.

I know you are all wondering: Blake, have you since mastered downhill mountain biking? Did you not let that failed adventure get the best of you? Did you brush yourself off and get back on that bike after you healed?

Well, no I didn’t.

Honestly, I have not been on a downhill mountain bike again since then, and I can say with confidence that I have no plans for that activity in the future. But what I did learn is to be careful of overconfidence. Life, similar to

adventure, can take a turn at any moment, and you have to be prepared. Careful preparation, concentration, and attention to detail are critical parts of any adventure as well as your lifelong pursuits.


There will likely be a point in your life that you choose to change paths and enter into an adventure with a partner. These partners could be mentors, co-workers, business partners, loved ones, or family of your own. Those adventures alongside those partners will change the entire dynamic. You can no longer make decisions independent of anyone else. You are now forced to make decisions that are in the best interest for the group. This is where things get tough.

It requires compromise and patience. For the adventurous souls that are used to taking risks, this can be tricky.

Entering into this relationship is a leap of faith for all parties involved. Figuring out how to navigate life’s adventures together is the key to success. I caution you to never stop taking calculated risks and caring for one another, just as this school has taught you to do with your friends, classmates, and professors. Foster these relationships, but do not get complacent. Keep embarking on those bold and sometimes risky undertakings, but love and

care for the people in your life. They come first now, and you will have to navigate these adventures together. Yes, some of these relationships will fail, and again, you will have to learn from your mistakes, pick yourself up, and try again.


The mountains have embraced this community and this school. It’s a safe haven for outdoor adventure, learning, and friendships. These mountains are your protector. They provide an amazing place for learning and growing into adulthood. Most of you will probably leave this safe haven and embark on one of the most important adventures of your life. Take what you have learned here, go out on your own, create the life that you have worked hard for, and know “you got this.”

Adventure is at the core of this school, and it is now part of you. Embrace those risky undertakings and bold experiences. And yes, they are exciting but also scary.

Accept failure, embrace learning, and go on to that next adventure.

Never stop taking chances.

Congratulations, graduates.

Thank you.