John Blackburn was the founding editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors, guiding the magazine through its first year of existence. We asked Blackburn to dish about running BRO back in the day.
Where did the idea for BRO come from?
Back in June of 1994, I was settling into a house in Charlottesville, looking forward to starting a masters degree at UVA in the fall. One of my housemates was a guy named Greg Easley. We spent most of the summer climbing, biking, trail running, and eating. We were living the dream, right? By mid-summer neither of us had a job, though, and our little nest eggs for grad school were dwindling. One day we started scheming ways to get paid to continue “Living the Dream,” and we came up with the idea that we could write a multisport guide for the Charlottesville area. Towards the end of the summer we had amassed several hundred pages of copy, but school was about to start, so we asked the publishers at C-ville Weekly what we should do with it. They offered to buy it for $900. The following year, one of the publishers laid out his idea for a free monthly outdoor sports magazine using our content. I put my thesis on a high shelf and became the first editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors.
What was the first year of BRO like from an editor’s perspective?
It was very shoestring, very seat-of-the-pants. We had almost no money for photography, so I used tons of my own personal photos. We had almost no money for freelancers, so I wrote almost all of it. All of this took place in a windowless basement, so it didn’t feel very outdoorsy or glamorous or cool. I managed to finish my thesis and get engaged somewhere in there, but by summer I was completely burned out.
In your first Editor’s Note, you mention that “eco-sports are here to stay.” Did you have a sense that BRO was on the forefront of a mass backyard adventure movement?
Eco-sports? What a lame thing to say! I thought at the time that Charlottesville was becoming much cooler, from my perspective, and that outdoor sports were beginning to get the attention they deserved. Sadly, I also felt the need to pump up the copy with a bit of that “Do the Dew!” kind of energy.
Given the lack of staff and budget, it’s impressive how practical those first few issues were.
I always thought the most important thing we could provide was practical information, with a dash of inspiration. I’ve heard from people who laminated some of those early trail descriptions, and I love that.
Any major disasters during that first year of editing BRO?
We had a typo on the cover of one of those early issues. On the cover! I missed it. Everybody missed it. It was demoralizing. I still have nightmares about it.
Do you still pick up BRO?
I read BRO, and it does make me nostalgic. I wish I got out more. I still ski and hike a bit, but I really miss those years when I spent months at a time in the backcountry. I get a lot of satisfaction from introducing my kids to outdoor sports, though.
John Blackburn is retired from journalism and now owns the Red Hen, a farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, Va. He also likes to take his kids skiing.