It had been a while since I had spent an entire day on assignment; a day with just me, my car, notepad and camera and winding roads. I have missed it. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Grundy, Va. for the grand opening of the Southern Gap Visitor’s Center and an evening meeting with the elk herds of Buchanan County.
The Southern Gap Visitor’s Center had been described to me from coworkers before it was completed. They told me how impressive and beautiful it was and I certainly believed them, but as I topped the winding mountain road and saw the center, my jaw dropped. To be honest, I had gotten a bit lost on the way. I was sure I was going in the right direction when a line of cars appeared before me winding their way up the mountain and I followed them. Indeed, we were headed in the same direction. From an outsider’s perspective, the grand opening of the Southern Gap Visitor’s Center seemed like a family reunion. Even in the sprinkling rain, people greeted and hugged outside the center before heading in. I asked one couple as I joined the crowd if I was at the right place and they welcomed me with open arms.
The Southern Gap Visitor’s Center is a palatial and rustic building. I’ll let myself describe it to you when it was fresh in my mind. In the article about the grand opening, I wrote, “Rustic, picturesque decor meets the eye at the entrance of the facility. The high ceilings and warm lighting of the Welcome Center is immediately well, welcoming.”
“The center is a beautiful picture of the past, present and future of Southern Gap. The tourism slogan for Buchanan County is “Embrace the Wild,” and the center reflects that sentiment atop a mountain ridge. Screens throughout the banquet hall feature stunning photography and video of the region’s scenery, adventure opportunities and local elk herds, in addition to local taxidermy throughout, further advertising the area’s incredibly diverse adventure opportunities.”
The center was filled with people for a few short speeches and the longest ribbon cutting ceremony I have ever seen. I mean that in a literal sense. The community of Grundy really did work together for the Visitor’s Center to become a reality. That was reflected in the length of the ribbon as it stretched nearly the length of the entrance of the building and so many scissors were involved in its cutting that it ended up in tiny pieces. Everyone laughed at their small remnants of the ribbon and cheered.
The crowd headed back inside to eat and I headed to my car and laptop to write up my story and send in photos, using the internet service of my cell phone to connect my laptop to our server. Again, I felt a sense of nostalgia of my earlier days as a reporter, writing stories from my car, working from the road and living off red bull energy drinks and fast food.
I submitted the story, photos and video and confirmed they had been received back in Bluefield then headed back into the center. I spoke with a few people and met up with Leon Boyd, SWV Sportsman’s Club, Virginia Chapter, RMEF, whom I had spoken on the phone with the previous day to set up my appointment with the elk. We agreed to meet back there in a few hours, prime time for the elk.
In the meantime, I headed to the local McDonalds and treated myself to a McFlurry. I drove around, exploring Grundy a bit before heading back up the mountain, making a quick stop at Polar Gap Park and then headed back to the Spearhead Trails Coal Canyon trailhead, which shares its parking area with the new visitor’s center and found a perfect spot for my wait.
Scattered across Virginia are “LOVE” signs, personalized to their location. The slogan, “Virginia is for lovers” is the inspiration behind these art installations. On accident, I pulled into the parking lot of the trailhead, the meeting place Leon and I had set up and prepared to wait. As I put my car in park I looked up and saw the beautiful sign with the rolling mountains behind it. I rolled my windows down, turned off my car and took in the scenery. I pulled out the book I am currently reading and waited with this perfect view for my appointment with the elk.
As the sun began to set, Leon pulled up with his fellow SWV Sportsman’s Club member, John Taylor. I hopped in their truck with my camera and notepad and off we went, in search of the elk herds. Along the Spearhead Trails Coal Canyon trailhead, the SWV Sportsman and other volunteers have built up viewing platforms. Some locals take advantage of these vantage points every night and Leon and John waved at all of their “regulars” as we passed. After a couple stops, we all began to fear that we wouldn’t see any elk on this trip. This season, the “cows,” or mother elk, have their calves and are hiding their babies from any predators. Eventually, on another mountaintop, on another winding mountain trail, we came upon a young bull and cow. Leon told me the bull was probably still hanging out with his mother from last season. They posed perfectly for photographs and went on their way.
After this spotting, more and more continued. The male elk, bulls, came out of the forest in full force. It seemed every turn we took as the sunset over the mountains another couple bulls were wandering out of the forest, ready for the perfect setting for this photographer. One thing that struck me is that these elk are not at all afraid of Leon and his truck. They know him. There was almost a nod of understanding as we pulled up. I hung out the truck door as I have done countless times on other assignments across the country. The first time I did this, I hung upside down out the window of a stranger’s moving SUV for my first photograph of a bald eagle, but that is a story for another time.
The elk herds of Grundy know who cares for them. They know these men are the ones cutting the grass and planting the right pollinators for their environment to thrive on these beautiful reclaimed mine lands. They allowed us to get so close Leon had to honk the horn for them to move off the gravel road. Even then, they just mosied off the path. It was an honor and privilege to meet and photograph these majestic creatures up close.
A smile stayed on my face as I drove through the night to my home after the elk adventure. It was a long day, but a memorable and incredible one. I am so grateful to the people of Grundy for their incredible hospitality. It really is a special place, tucked in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.
— Contact Emily Rice at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @BDTrice