YMCA Blue Ridge Campus at Black Mountain, North Carolina
Sequestered by a sea of towering evergreens, gurgling streams and a musky mountain road, the YMCA’s Blue Ridge Assembly graces the eastern slopes of Black Mountain, North Carolina. The lodging facility, tucked away in the center of the mountain provides guests with a view encompassing valleys, wildflowers, ridges, and all of Ashville. The abundant southern charm of the Assembly is perhaps best appreciated from one of one hundred green wicker rocking chairs on the front porch of the 19th century wooden mansion named Lee Hall. The view of a euphoric sunrise splattered with an array of warm pinks and oranges begins each day with a blissful tone necessary to explore 1200 acres of woodland. These past two weeks attending the YMCA’s most visited campus have given me a precious reminder of the natural beauty of the South.
The YMCA founded the Blue Ridge Assembly in 1906 thanks to the fervor of a YMCA member, Dr. Willis Weatherford, who believed in his vision of a campus to serve the students by enhancing spiritually through a natural setting. His experience drives the “Blue Ridge Spirit” found on Black Mountain. After searching across the country for a venue, the man climbed Black Mountain in hopes of finding an open area to build upon. However, as fate would have it, he instead climbed a tree and was at once mesmerized by the sight before him, yelling “Eureka! I have found it!” Thus, the YMCA chose this exact place to build its Blue Ridge Campus in order to allow visitors to feel engulfed in the “beauty of America.” The Assembly is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and serves over 30,000 visitors annually. Most of the guests are students seeking the “Blue Ridge Spirit”. The Blue Ridge Spirit is the term used to refer to the finding of ones spiritual home through the conferences held by the nonprofits, schools, government units, churches, and human service organizations at the Assembly. The assembly itself is a nonprofit, tax-exempt conference and leadership-training center. The campus is owned by the YMCA and serves as the primary location for the major conferences of the YMCAs in the ten southeastern states.
I asked other visitors at the Conference on National Affairs being held at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly their experiences with Blue Ridge and they responded:
“Atop a mountain in the middle of North Carolina stands the incredible YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. I couldn’t help but smile at the sea of faces that glared at me while there. Endorsing a mundane mentality was simply not in me when standing in such a beautiful place feeling the Blue Ridge Spirit.”
“Looking back exactly a year ago, I had no idea of what I was getting myself into by going to the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, well I figured out that I was getting myself into one of the best things I have experienced. To any future visitors have fun and don't be afraid, and let the Blue Ridge Spirit hit you. Have a cheer wine for me! Maybe next year we can all share one.”
Sally Hansen, California
“I loved the rustic experience of attending Blue Ridge. I truly found a new appreciation for the natural beauty of America’s southeastern coast. Although I was not a fan of having no cell-phone service or Wi-Fi, the experience forced me to get to know the people at the mountain without the interference of modern technology.”
My experience was similar to Sally’s. Between the buffet-style fried southern cuisine, plantation-themed architecture, forested surroundings, and wide streams, I felt truly connected to our country’s history through the “blue ridge spirit”. At first I had a difficult time understanding what the “blue ridge spirit” was. I have been to many YMCA conference centers and each has its own personal charm but Blue Ridge is one of the least technologically enhanced which stressed me out because I could not use my cell-phone or computer. However, after spending a day on campus I understood. The mission of Blue Ridge is for visitors to find a spiritual connection to their home: the United States. I figured out that by spending a week surrounded by colonial era buildings, eating traditional American cuisine, and speaking only with the people around me let me become rooted back to my American heritage. My newfound sense of patriotism was my version of the “Blue Ridge Spirit”. On the other hand, having recently had my gastrocnemius surgical impaired, constantly hiking the mountain between facilities in order to eat during the summer when there is a high level of humidity and heat was very difficult. I would recommend physically impaired visitors to attend during spring when there is no snow, heat, or leaves, to hamper transportation.
Campus Housing Options:
There are a variety of lodging experiences one can have while visiting the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. Your choice of housing is dependent upon the type of experience you desire.
If you like air conditioning, private baths, telephones, and double bed style hotel rooms the following facilities would be appropriate.
On the other hand, if you do not mind humidity and enjoy hiking without camping the non-air conditioned hotel-style facilities would be more accustomed to your needs.
Weatherford Hall and Abbot Hall
If you are interested in a 19th century plantation-style mansion for housing Lee Hall is the largest lodging location on campus and is over one hundred years old. Unlike most renovated facilities, Lee Hall has minimal electrical outlets and communal showering. I stayed at Lee Hall for the social experience but there is no cafeteria or place to eat in Lee Hall so I paid for meals at the Blue Ridge Center down the hill. Lee Hall is similar to “the lawn” at University of Virginia because the appeal of the dormitory is its colonial history with little renovation for technological advancements.
Things to Do:
Black Mountain is known for its trails and lakes. I hiked the main trail leaving from campus to the peak of the mountain, which takes on average 2-4 hours. The hike entails barebacked rock climbing, pushing through evergreens, walking through acres of yellow and pink wildflowers, and crossing narrow edges of cliffs with dense woods. After profusely sweating, cutting my legs repeatedly, and stopping at several of the wooden benches lining the trail, the sense of accomplishment from reaching the peak of the Black Mountain was overwhelming. Standing at one of the highest points of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains allowed me to see Virginia, Tennessee, and western North Carolina. For the first time in my life, I felt the interconnectedness of our divided states as one home, America.
There are also less rigorous activities for visitors who wish to stay on campus. There is an Olympic style swimming pool, tennis courts, art studios, and a lake where one can swim or use a paddleboat. There are also plenty of open fields to play games such a football, soccer, or even play ultimate Frisbee. I personally enjoyed the sunrise yoga held on the great lawn in the center of campus. There is one activity if you visit you should make your top priority: the fire of friendship. In the summer the YMCA staff creates a giant bonfire on the fourth of July with oak from the surrounding forest. As the fire burns at least twenty feet high, the staff plays patriotic music and pieces of famous American speeches such as “I had a dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. and “Tear down this wall” by Ronald Reagan. That moment truly solidified my experience of feeling “the Blue Ridge Spirit.”
If you choose to travel to a YMCA conference center keep in mind the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly and remember one thing-participate don’t anticipate. The “blue ridge spirit” means something different to every person so allow yourself to have a vacation where you surprise yourself. A vacation without any plans or schedules but merely exploring. You can hike at any mountain and learn about American history in the northeastern cities but Blue Ridge is unique in that here you experience a connection between our country’s nature and history. Of course in order to feel that connection you must remember sunscreen and bug spray. I never thought I could feel attached to a conference center but the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly opened my eyes to a new type of vacation.
"YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly - Home." YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly - Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 June 2012. <http://www.blueridgeassembly.org/>.
Ingalls, Sam, Donovan Hunsucker, and Sally Hansen. "Blue Ridge Personal Testimonials." Personal interview. 6 June 2012.