Nature Makes the “Mountain” Town

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Current River, Mo 1977 Author is in back middle 

As I wrote in my last blog, “Its About Nature Stupid”, those of us so fortunate to have frequented America’s “mountain towns” and outdoor recreation destinations know the vibrancy and the attraction that their mix of access to nature, the outdoors, and active culture creates. I love the buzz of a great outdoor town. The people with the requisite Labrador Retriever mix hanging out in the cafes or tooling by on a converted beach cruiser. The craft beer and great food. The music and the craft beer. And then there’s the craft beer…

But we know the fundamental source of that outdoor culture don’t we…yeah it is the nature and the access to places to play outdoors that make these famous communities what they are. So what turned these former mining and lumber camps into outdoor destinations? What drove the cultures and the allure of these towns that now make Oklahoma City, Chattanooga and Duluth want emulated them?

Well like always, first it was the access. By the middle of the 20th century, over 50 years of land conservation in the form of the National Park Service, US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, etc. had made the truly great outdoors accessible. The development of thousands of state and local parks and trails by New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Work Progress Administration (WPA) created local access across the country.

But the access alone didn’t create the culture we seek and the industry that made it possible. In the years after World War II, veterans and their families were enjoying a huge economic surge fostered by the pent up consumer demand of post-war America and the benefits of the GI Bill. Their new suburban lives, based on the growth of the American corporation, provided this generation the unique luxury of leisure time. Leisure time and the emergence of the American automobile with the Interstate highway system gave post-war Americans the time and mobility to get outside.

Risk takers and entrepreneurs like Payson Kennedy, the founder of Nantahala Outdoor Center and Vail Resort founder Pete Siebert, a sergeant in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II led the way and thousands followed.

Having experienced family vacations to the great national parks, Boy Scout canoe trips, and picnics in local parks, youngsters from the Boomer generation took it one step further pioneering the move outdoors. They struck out for places like Bishop, Leadville, Boulder and yes Burlington and Asheville too. Drawn by the work of the “greatest generation’s” efforts to build the early outdoor recreation industry, kids moved west into Colorado and California and worked in the summer camps of western North Carolina. These young boomers were ski bums, they worked in the molybdenum mines of Leadville, they were camp counselors in Brevard or worked as day laborers and waitresses in Vail or Aspen. Some didn’t bother to work and just hung out in Yosemite’s Camp 4 and built the climbing industry.

As the industry grew, so did the opportunity for careers and bigger adventures. As places like Vail and the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), and concerns like The North Face and Patagonia became thriving businesses, so did the outdoor activities we loved. Skiing, eventually snowboarding, whitewater kayaking, backpacking and cycling all grew up in the last half of the 20th century. The bike itself morphed from the Schwinn Orange Crate and 10 speed Collegiate of the 60’s to the carbon machines of today. And mountain bikes, which dominate my cycling time these days, had just started to happen in the mountains of Marin County, just north of San Francisco. I remember when Jim Fixx, who wrote the book on running was a major star in the early 1970’s. When I was a kid, if you saw someone running down the street you would wonder who was chasing them. We went from aluminum Grumman canoes in the 60’s to roto-molded plastic kayaks in the 80’s. In the 1990’s, kayaks changed from long (13 feet) to very short (6 feet) and are going back to long again. For me, I look back and wonder how all this happened in less than one lifetime…mine. Certainly the culture of the 1960s and 1970s had a lot to do with it, it was in fact a time of change. It was a back to nature movement then that has in a sense been resurrected by the millennial generation. This current generation is both flocking to the urban core and returning to the organic farm, all while seeking authenticity of place and experience.

As the pace of life has accelerated due to the emergence of digital communication innovations, like email, smart phones and social media we are seeing participation in the outdoors change. With seemingly not as much time to recreate because of constant accompaniment of one screen or another and the demand of the gig economy, amazingly we are seeing participation in some pursuits actually rise. Not because more people are taking the time to head to the remote backcountry initially, but because the outdoor industry has innovated and brought the adventure to us. This urban access to outdoor pursuits is creating a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts and is fueling a new urban outdoor industry.

Innovations in urban outdoor recreation are everywhere these days. Climbing gyms like the Urban Krag in Dayton and So Ill in St Louis are introducing urbanites and their kids to climbing in the Midwest. The explosion in metropolitan-based mountain bike clubs is helping mountain bikers create their own access by working with local parks to build sustainable trails close to home. The development of truly urban mountain biking via compact bike parks, indoor riding and here-to-fore unknown urban trails is bringing riding to the people. In the realm of paddle sports, outfitters and clubs are using local lakes and rivers to give people the first taste of paddling through programs like Try Kayaking and other paddle sports discovery programs. Whitewater parks, both in-river structures and artificial behemoths like the new $45 million park in Oklahoma City, are exposing the masses to whitewater like never before. And the rise of municipal outdoor initiatives like the one I founded in Dayton, Five Rivers Outdoors, or Chattanooga’s Outdoor Chattanooga and others in Richmond, Asheville, Knoxville and Cleveland are attempting to grow culture and brand their communities as outdoor destinations.

Creating urban access to outdoor recreation has been my passion since working at NOC. I have been pursuing the question of how to develop and deliver outdoor recreation opportunities at the urban scale since the late 1990’s. What I have found as I have worked at this, is that outdoor recreation has this magic, colorful and high visibility ability to get people excited and that in turn can change the conversation in communities that are seeking their own way forward. The vibrancy created by getting people outside and helping them experience and accomplish something they never thought they would do in their own community is compelling.

Finally, developing access to the outdoors in communities that are distressed economically and culturally has the potential to solve these community’s most pressing problem…the negativity and inferiority complex that permeates thinking in rustbelt towns and cities. This feeling that nothing great will ever happen here blinds the community and robs it of its ability to see its inherent advantages and what could be possible for the future.

I’ll write more on urban access to nature, the urban outdoor culture and the conservation vs. preservation struggle in my next blog.

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