Mountain trip sparks nostalgia

Black Mountain, N.C., is a community 16 miles east of Asheville in the Swannanoa River Valley. Interstate 40 and the Southern Railroad pass through there to get into “The Land of the Sky,” as western North Carolina calls itself.

As the “front porch of the mountains,” Black Mountain has become a place for tourists and fall leaf peepers to enjoy the mountain scenery, local music and crafts, and to experience hiking and kayaking challenges. It is also the location of the former Black Mountain College (1933-56), Montreat Presbyterian Conference Center and College, Ridgecrest Christian Center and, among other conference centers, YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly.

Black Mountain holds a beloved place in our family because in 1919, my wife’s father built a cottage there on the side of Hi Top Mountain. Sally spent summers there all of her early life.

It is of special note to me because it is where I proposed to Sally and she unhesitatingly said yes — the happiest day of my life!

We visited Black Mountain this summer. We stayed at Blue Ridge Assembly, run by the Southern Region YMCA, where she had worked for two summers during college. It has become an amazing place, she says.

The college student work / study staff now comes from all over the U.S. and from Asia, Latin America and Europe. Waiting tables, making beds and staffing the registration desk are just their day jobs. More important are the cross cultural friendships they form, the development of their physical skills in the rigors of the Challenge Course, hiking and swimming, and the spiritual enrichment they gain from the pervasive reverence for the beauty and majesty of the mountains.

Sally tells the story of the founding of Blue Ridge. Willis D. Weatherford in 1906 was employed by the YMCA of the South to organize meetings and training sessions for staff. He wanted the YM to build a place in which to hold such gatherings.

He looked at several places in the South and finally came to the little town of Black Mountain. He and a colleague hiked through the woods nearby up High Top Mountain till he climbed a tree to see what the view would be.

“Eureka! We’ve found the place!” he shouted, and Blue Ridge was begun.

“My father was on Weatherford’s staff at the YMCA Graduate School in Nashville, and in the summers at Blue Ridge, in the early years,” Sally said. That is how his cottage came to be built on adjacent property, just a mile away through the woods.

Dr. Weatherford followed five principles in designing the Blue Ridge program. First is the dignity of labor, no matter how menial.

Then there is spiritual enrichment, rooted in the Christian foundation of the YMCA. Next is intellectual stimulation through study and discussion. Human relations skills are developed through the cultural diversity of Blue Ridge. Good management skills keep the Assembly vibrant and growing.

In Dr. Weatherford’s day, to have a place where men and women, black and white, could come together for study and community was revolutionary. He was deeply affected by the plight of blacks in the South and the poverty in the southern Appalachian Mountains. and worked all his life to better those conditions. Blue Ridge epitomizes a concrete way to foster the changes and development such conditions demand.

Black Mountain’s Blue Ridge Assembly still offers college students experiences in international friendships, spiritual inspiration and outdoor adventures. They earn a little money, get some college credits and absorb the Blue Ridge spirit. The Assembly continues to foster the values that make it more than just a place for a summer job.

One former director wrote, “I have had people tell me that they came here to work but they left with experiences that changed their lives.”

Those students may be the seeds of change that is so needed in our world today.

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