Mountain man: Holden leads store to new heights

If a movie's ever made about a man who's stranded in unforgiving, isolated territory, who's forced to live off the land while fighting off rabid coyotes and insane drifters, but who leaves no doubt that he'll emerge victorious, casting agents will need look no further than Blue Ridge Mountain Sports manager John Holden.

With a face as weathered and chiseled as Mount Rushmore, a shock of nearly white hair, and a physique that many 30-somethings might envy, it's no surprise that Holden says age is not an issue.

"You don't have to lose anything," he insists. At age 59, Holden believes that "discipline" is the key to retaining youth. While his activist son Andrew once famously chained himself to an Omni Hotel elevator to protest low wages, Holden chains himself to routine. He runs 10 miles a day, six days a week, and leads outdoor group adventures several times a month.

His latest adventure, however, is indoors. After more than 30 years in Charlottesville, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports is finally expanding. On June 12, the BRMS "flagship" store opened in the former A&N space, two doors down from the store's first Barracks Road location. (The store originally opened in 1972 on Emmet Street across from what is now Bodo's.)

And though in the 22 years he's been with the store, he's overseen the opening of new store locations across Virginia, New Jersey, and Tennessee (there are 13 total), Holden says he's "spent 10 years waiting" for the local expansion.

Gazing around the new space, filled this day with athletic folks stocking shelves and asking questions, Holden points out some highlights: recycled wood is used throughout, Crutchfield has installed a top-notch sound system, and both Patagonia and North Face are sending teams to perfect the displays of outdoor paraphernalia.

"We wanted to make this the most attractive outdoor store in the country," says Holden.

Part of the reason the store has been able to expand, he says, is that outdoor activities have crossed into the mainstream. When Holden, a Wisconsin native and former teacher, got his outdoor start more than 30 years ago at Boston's Eastern Mountain Sports, there weren't that many enthusiasts.

"It was so specific," he says.

But as anyone who's noticed the popularity of Patagonia and North Face fleeces knows, "now it's a lot more of a general lifestyle," says Holden.

Because of that fact, the trips he leads vary in difficulty– from easy walks through scenic fields to more intense backpacking or whitewater rafting adventures.

But one of his favorite trips in recent years highlighted an eco-success: the return of the coyotes to West Virginia. Holden recalls a night spent listening to the haunting howls.

"It was magical," he says.

And guess what? He made it back alive.

Go figure.

John Holden