Blue Ridge Country - March/April 2018 - 66
Building Memories, One Adventure at a Time
Bill Burnham is the owner-operator, with his wife, Mary Burnham, of Burnham Guides LLC, which combines their work as guidebook authors and kayak guides. They've written eight books and hundreds of
magazine articles, and led more than 200 excursions. New editions of their books "Hiking Virginia" and
"Best Hikes Near Washington, D.C." are due out this year. Follow their adventures at BurnhamGuides.com
by Bill Burnham
Mary and Bill Burnham pause with Coco in Virginia's Grayson Highlands.
We sat across from each other in a small diner and he asked
me again: What exactly is your plan? I'd put in my resignation as a beat reporter on a newspaper in Hampton
Roads, Virginia. The lead-up was the decision by my
wife, Mary, and me, that as a writing couple, we would
shed our full-time jobs and become freelance travel writers and guidebook authors. In the transition, we would
spend summers working for a kids adventure camp.
My friend asked our waiter for a to-go container.
Wrapping wax paper around half a sandwich, folding
the corners and tucking them in, he said: Good luck, but
you'll probably be doing this [fold fold, tuck tuck] in six
We did in fact run off to the mountains and join a
group of amazing people at a summer camp in the Allegheny Mountains. And yes, I was driven to prove my
skeptics wrong. But moreso, I held an ideal that I could
share my love of the outdoors with children, teach and
learn with them how to respect the land and live off the
land, and have a heck of a time.
After a few years, mission summer camp became mission real life. From free-wheeling freelancers and camp
leaders, we took on the role of surrogate parents: house,
mortgage and bills. Breakfast and dinner at the kitchen
table, school, sports and homework. And yet there was
guide work to be done. So then did we strap backpacks
on our young charges-niece Sarah and nephew Matthias-and hike the Rocky Branch/Gap Run Trail in
Shenandoah NP as we researched our first guidebook.
There was a glorious Assateague Island overnight
with Vanessa and barely 7-year old Josh, complete with
wild ponies and a campfire on the beach.
Later, niece Heather joined us for the (now) hilarious
run down Skyline Drive to Thortons Gap, Heather and
me in a pick-up with no brakes, Mary in another vehicle
in front serving as a bumper-brake.
There was a memorable Three Ridges trip with Sarah and Vanessa and the unfortunate rice-stuffed grape
leaves cooked in too much olive oil. And more recently,
an outing from Elizabeth Furnace up the Massanutten
Range to Spy Rock with the girls, their boyfriends, and
brothers Elijah and Josh-the first time I realized they
were old enough to buy their own beer.
Never could we have imagined it would be our last
hike with Josh, who we lost last year at the far-tooyoung age of 26.
As I reflect 20 years later, I am most proud of taking those kids into the wilderness where you face challenges together, both physical and emotional. And it's
not always pretty, and you don't always get along. But
you trudge up and over the mountain, and back down
the other side. Then start climbing the next one. Some
of those mountains are personal challenges, others are
the loss of loved ones, and still others are taking care
of those in need. I write guidebooks for a living, yet no
guide could have led me along this path. Only hope,
and I guess blind optimism.
Now a new crop of young kids is coming up in our
extended family. In them, a new chance to pry up rocks
in a stream looking for crayfish, tell ghost stories around
the campfire, build fairy houses in the knobs and nooks
of tall evergreens. And strap on a backpack and explore.
As owners of our outdoor adventure company, yes,
we do wrap up people's leftovers, as predicted 20 years
ago. But we get to do it with a dash of adventure and
fun, and with lots of memories of the cherished people
and places along the way.