Interview by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
For decades, people have debated what John Denver meant by the phrase Rocky Mountain High, with some claiming it was a drug reference. But if you’ve ever put in the effort to walk up a wooded trail, emerge from a tree canopy and look out over creation from the summit of a mountain, you know exactly what he meant. You’ve felt the elation that can sometimes be so profound, it inspired the term “mountain-top experience” to describe a spiritual awakening.
It’s a simple fact: Physical elevation can elevate your mood, making mountains almost-magical cures for the pandemic (or any other) blues. And when picking a mountain, any peak in the South’s Blue Ridge range is perfect. But what do you do if you live deep down in Alabama or in South Carolina’s lowcountry or along the Mississippi coast and can’t currently travel (thanks, COVID-19) to reach the mountains? Enter Blue Ridge Guru founder Jennifer Woods and her virtual hikes.
Ask Woods, called “Woodsy” by most, about her affection for western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and she waxes poetic, describing that first blush of infatuation. “In the summer of 1996, I moved to Highlands, N.C., to work as a seasonal waitress. As I drove up the Cullasaja Gorge in the fog, with that white-knuckle of a drop-off out my passenger-side window, my heart was hopelessly lost to me for the Blue Ridge Mountains and all the adventures I was determined to have in them. This wasn't my first trip to western North Carolina, but it was the one where I knew I was home,” she says.
In January, she started Blue Ridge Guru, an Asheville-based service that matches hikers with hiking trails in the western North Carolina area. BRG customers give Woods their travel and hiking goals and based on that info and an immense “hike-clopedia” of trails, BRG creates a custom hiking journey for them. “These unique hiking itineraries are complete with any hints, tips or directions we think you need to thoroughly enjoy your trip,” Woods says. “It’s an affordable, more flexible alternative to hiring a traditional guide or joining a pre-planned hiking excursion, as you're free to explore as much or as little of the itinerary as you please, on your own schedule, without interrupting the organic flow of your vacation time.” BRG also helps fund Woods’ other passion, Hey Y’all Farm, which grows and donates fresh produce to area food banks.
But When COVID-19 hit the United States, it halted BRG’s plans. Never one to stay stuck, Woods decided to make BRG virtual, giving the world the gift of her past hikes, posting photos and videos of them, accompanied by her lovely prose describing the special spots in thoughtful detail, on Instagram. (Join in by following @blueridgeguru.)
Here, she shares why she started BRG, spills the beans on a personal favorite peak and provides some practical hiking advice.
GG: When did you first fall in love with hiking?
Woods: I reckon the only outdoor activity I don't like is falling in a poison ivy patch. To boot, life gifted me an awesome if very active dog, Charlie, who was the same. Whenever his energy would clash to sometimes slapstick levels with our suburban lifestyle in Louisville [Woods and her husband left North Carolina for a short stint in Kentucky before returning to Asheville in 2013], I would promise to someday take him home to North Carolina where we would have every adventure we could ever dream; where, even in summer, it's cool enough up high for a super furry dog to enjoy a July afternoon. Shortly after moving back, every Sunday morning we would "go to church," choosing a new hike to explore, and before long, the tradition spilled out over all my spare time. Friends started to travel to Asheville to join me on these hikes, and I loved hosting guests, watching them fall in love with these mountains, too. We were making the kind of memories that etch permanently in the soul, the days you cling to during the storms.
What are a few of your favorite hikes in the area and why?
Choosing a trail is a Very Important Process for me. I love to curate just about anything, a byproduct of working as an editor for much of my career. So, my favorite trail comes down to many factors like time of year, my mood, my fitness level. etc. My most favorite hikes are annoyingly top secret, available to friends, family and Blue Ridge Guru customers (although I give out some pretty good hints on the Instagram). All that aside, hiking to the top of Cold Mountain is about as quintessential a western North Carolina experience as you could ever want to have, and if you love this area, I highly recommend putting this stout one-day excursion on your bucket list. While I strongly suggest working up to the climb, every bit of effort you put in to preparing for that hike will reward you tenfold––mind, body and spirit.
What prompted the “virtual hikes” you’ve been posting on Instagram?
When the pandemic started spreading, the outdoors quickly became a front-runner as a coping mechanism for this crisis for those who could enjoy access. Blue Ridge Guru was gearing up to host its first hiking retreat in the spring, and when airlines started closing flights, we decided to cancel. I still wanted to connect with new adventure seekers, retreat or no, so I started giving away free trail recommendations through the Blue Ridge Guru Instagram. People took me up on the free trail match, which was fantastic––and fun––coupling people who were awkwardly trying to figure out social distancing to the excitement of new hikes in their area. But I was matchmaking all day and making no money, and there was no way to bring in folks who couldn't access the outdoors, so I felt there might be a better way to connect. While dreaming up a new, sustainable way to contribute a positive dialogue, a good portion of trail access temporarily closed down, and I became uncomfortable encouraging people to get out without much information yet available on the virus. Personally, I felt mildly panicked. And out of that stress, I started going through hundreds of photographs and short videos from hikes I had taken over the past several years and never really gone back to. I had so much footage and watching it, I honestly felt better. So, I thought maybe others out there would feel better too, and the virtual hikes began.
What have you gotten out of revisiting your favorite places and sharing them with others through the virtual hikes?
Normal blood pressure. Ha! Seriously, though, I'm amazed how my entire being just calms way down going through this footage each morning (I usually put my hikes together first thing over my morning coffee, in order to start my day in the most positive way I know how). I've read just looking at pictures of nature has a beneficial effect similar to actually being in nature, but I can't say I ever really bought it. There's no replacing the real thing, obviously, but I'm no longer skeptical that just watching nature imagery has an intrinsic benefit as well.
What do you hope others get out of the virtual hikes, especially during this pandemic and the resulting shutdowns and restrictions?
Well, honestly, if someone out there enjoys the hikes, I don't much care why, only that they feel good and happy for the few seconds they are on the journey with me. Ideally, they might be inspired to try new hikes, to be kind to Mother Nature in the way they move through their life, but in a time like this one, any speck of light and happiness is a welcome guest. Maybe we disagree about every other hot topic of the day, but if my joy spreads to you, then we have done the best we can, and we are all better off.
Got some tips for beginning hikers? Good footwear. I can't say it enough. I've seen so many hikes ruined by feet that are in pain from shoes that are soaked, too slick, etc. Hiking doesn't require much gear, which is one of its many charms, but if you have the ability to invest in a fairly decent pair of hiking shoes, you are more likely to keep up the sport.
Tell us a bit about your other passion, Hey Y’all Farm.
When I was a kid, I thought having enough money to feel safe and then giving the rest of it away to people who needed it more than me seemed like a pretty good way to live a life. Hey Y’all Farm is a small tract of land located in the quiet little valley of Busbee Mountain in Asheville, where we have carved out a mountain homestead and strive to live a life of active gratitude based on what I'm still pretty sure is a good way to live. We grow pesticide-free produce for donating to local food banks to help combat the high numbers of food insecure in our area. We create farm goods for retail sale to help fund our free food garden, in addition to the proceeds from Blue Ridge Guru.