By: L. Renee Blount

As an adventurer and photographer, I often feel the South’s gems aren’t as celebrated. I’ve seen a lifetime’s worth of beautiful places and people. And I want to herald a place that’s specialness is beyond the words I write. 

My unexpected career and life is one that has been mercurial. My life has been bouncing from place to place as a child and adult. Some may find that unsettling, but I love the ability to roam and see. It’s become integral to who I am. And as a risk taker, I embrace a life that does not have to be linear. I am here to go off the path. And of the places that I’ve been, there are few that feel like home even as a person that has come of age traveling. 

 My concept of home is more of a feeling. I grew up moving around and my family settled in the South. As a person of color, there’s something romantic about a place where time slows but it still undeniably complex, it’s hard to divorce the history, making it all the important to reclaim with joy and my personal presence for the many who never felt conformable to go, and for the many who may still feel that they cannot. 

A place that gives me the feeling of home can be found nestled deep in Appalachia. This is a region where I first started climbing. At first I was quite nervous to go as the bumper stickers change. But I kept hearing of this place that made me want to give up that nervousness and fear of not having service in a desolate area. 

That place is Grayson Highlands, where time seems to slow and nature reaches out to touch your soul in a beautiful way. I had heard about it many times and convinced a friend to visit with me, so I would feel more safe. I had heard that wild ponies existed up in the hills off the AT in an area where there’s climbing. So, I went. And have gone again again. 

That first visit was an early morning leave from Chapel Hill in the spring. Like San Francisco, where I live now, we drove high in the mountains and could see the fog roll in. It was honestly breathtaking as you criss-cross the Blue Ridge highways from North Carolina into Virginia with many Christmas tree farms that give the smell of pine and deeply nestled homesteads seen off in the distance. As you enter the park in the early morning, you see the rolling fog. And then you rise above the clouds. 

Only a few miles from the visitor center, we drove to the Rhododendron trail head. As we began our walk, there a was dewiness, a wet green grass and the ever-present fog. A few on horseback galloped past us as we journeyed. The forested trail opens to a high meadow. And then there’s this moment where you become child-like. We started to see the ponies (who are actually not the most wild) but still wildly majestic. They seemed unbothered by our presence as we marveled and continued onto the path where we heard there were more– another beautiful grassy area that seemed eden-esque with trees, fog, the brightest green grass where you can tell your high up as the landscape gives beautiful views.

With very few people right alongside the Appalachian Trail that heads to Mount Rogers, the ponies were there. A few had just given birth. They laid in the grass as we took long moments to take it in with wild eyes. It felt special. And this is where my love for epic day trips began. We continued onto the trail. As we walked, we got higher in elevation. Peak spring, the wild blueberries were ripe as we walked. And we encountered more ponies unbothered by our presence as we ate the berries from our hands and smiled. 

That first idyllic visit made me want to share it with others, so I go back and take new people to experience it, reliving that first experience through their eyes. First with my brother in the winter as it snowed and now with friends of color who never thought that deep Appalachia would be a place for them. Their smiles and awestruck faces are beautiful to see like my most recent visit this Fall with friends I made while living in NYC. 

I find it important to share this type of experience with others who haven’t had this type of experience or would not expect to have it here in the deep South. And for those who notice my radical visibly as woman of color and joy. It’s important to reclaim and this is a place that undeniably feels of home. 

About L. Renee Blount

L. Renee Blount is endlessly curious and all about joy. She recently relocated from New York City to the Bay Area. “L” (short for Lanisha) is a Harvard-trained designer, creative strategist, adventurer, and storyteller. She works in innovation and storytelling to illuminate untold stories and to rethink the future. L believes in trying new things every month. She is the co-producer and host of Beyond Familiar, a series about the pure joy of trying innovative outdoor experiences.

Follow along on her adventures: @urbanclimbr on Instagram

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