While vacationing in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, buddies Jim McGuire and Dorne Pentes came across an unusual real estate ad. In the town of Lansing, a few miles from the Virginia border, a private owner was selling the old high school, a two-story, 20,000-square-foot granite and stone building built in 1937 as part of a federal program to employ workers during the Depression. Also for sale: An adjacent 8,000-square-foot school building from the early 1970s. The two friends, who live about two hours away in Charlotte, both have careers – McGuire is a photographer and Pentes is a filmmaker – families, and limited investment experience. The structures needed major renovations and were located in a rundown mill town of 200 in the middle of nature. The area was beautiful and the temptation was too much: They put in a bid and won the auction.
McGuire and Pentes began driving up to Lansing with their families on the weekends to work on the buildings, repairing the roof, plumbing, wiring, and windows, and converting classrooms into bedrooms. Over the years, it started to come together. The friends dubbed their project Fort Awesome and opened it to the public as a kind of hostel retreat for creative types. Rooms now rent for $30 a night, and the former high school is a hub for funky festivals and live music.
The eccentric getaway is a great home base for exploring the area. The 34-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, a former railroad bed that passes through the Mount Rogers National Recreation area, is only 20 minutes away and ideal for hiking and mountain biking. Lansing is less than a mile from the headwaters of the New River, 26 miles of which have been designated a scenic waterway, with mild rapids made for canoeing. Some of the state’s best trout fishing can be found in Big Horse Creek, which runs through the town's nine-acre park, and just across the state line in Virginia, the 4,822-acre Grayson Highlands State Park provides year-round access to the Appalachian Trail and miles of singletrack.
Moreover, as Fort Awesome has grown and evolved, so has the town around it. Once a popular stop along the Norfolk and Western Railway, progress bypassed the region after the textile industry bottomed out. But now, thanks to people like Ann Rose of the Greater Lansing Area Development Committee, the quaint downtown area is undergoing a revitalization.
Rose, who's been a Lansing hog farmer for 14 years, recently opened Rose Mountain Butcher Shoppe, which sells organic meats, produce, and cheese, along with soaps, pottery, and local artwork. Rose's shop joins a growing number of other new retailers, including an old-fashioned general store that hosts live music, a vintage motorcycle shop, and an art boutique with home decor made from recycled materials. There's also Smithey's Café, a laid-back burger joint, and Pie on the Mountain, which serves the "best hand-tossed pizza in North Carolina."
"I see this as a rebirth," said Rose. "This town has been empty since the Seventies, but that's starting to change. We have so much to offer here, and soon people are going to start catching on."
More information: The two-hour drive northwest from Charlotte cuts through the deep and dark Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest before turning toward Virginia.