I have to admit. It felt unusual to see so many people in one day. Since the COVID pandemic sent us all into the confines of our screens and the boundary of our yards, I’ve missed the adventure of meeting strangers. After, all – it’s one of the things I’ve come to appreciate the most. Uncovering new moments, new stories, and a few images seem to satisfy my local spirit of adventure.

Earlier in the day, I met our videographer Jared Bentley and Pam Cox just outside of Gate City, Virginia. Pam is the (one-woman/wonder woman) tourism director for the county and she arrived right on time with her storyboard. We’re getting early footage for a marketing campaign coming up later in the year and this was our first day to gather footage at businesses who are just starting to open back up to the public.

This part of Virginia has a lot of memories for me. When I first started to work for the newspaper, I served this area and the businesses who line Main Street and Jackson Street. There’s a lot of familiar last names like Broadwaters, Frazier, McConnell, Kilgore, Smith, and many others. The point being, it doesn’t take long to connect your dots if you spend any time in this region.

Besides the businesses I’ve worked with, there are plenty of moments traveling around with Folk Soul Revival through these parts too. From the Carter Fold to the Natural Tunnel, there’s a lot of musical memories here and tourism too. We’ve worked with several people over the years to shine the light on this part of Southwest Virginia. What it lacks in urban amenities, it makes up in spades – a natural American landscape filled with history and activities centered around the land and family.

Although I had taken the road outside of Gate City toward Nickelsville on Highway 71 a handful of times before, I had never stopped in Snowflake, Virginia. This small mountain town is nestled in the Valley and is home to side roads with names like Sleigh Bell Dive, Reindeer Drive, Wonderland Drive, and Bob Sled Circle.

There’s an abandoned general store near State Road 671 that has a sign that points the way to the Creation Kingdom Zoo. I’ve noticed a lot of photos of exotic animals popping up on social media over the past several years and was really interested in meeting the family who runs the place. It’s a scenic two-lane road that meanders across mountain streams and meadows. There is an old abandoned schoolhouse and plenty of small homesteads that fade off into the trees. Before you know it, there is an iron lattice with wild animals etched across the top and a small gravel road that leads up parking lot sheltered by 15-foot bamboo.

Jared knew the lady at the entrance who takes admission to the park. He went to high school with her and easily struck up a conversation. We shot a few statements from outside and within a few moments, a small monkey appeared from behind the counter and a little girl was proud to lift her up for us to see. She also told his her husband Mike was tending to some of the animals.

This destination is actually quite ingenious. My first thoughts were that there had to be lots of short cuts. That’s far from the truth. As we walked through the immaculate little gift shop, we came into a paved walkway that opened into a hillside where we were treated by parrots, cockatoos and a large maccaw. As the path descended a few wildebeest came up to the feeding trough and Pam immediately fed them from her hand.

Dr. Marc Bradley is the zookeeper for Creation Kingdom Zoo. As most land-owners in this region of Appalachia, the ‘how did you get started” story begins with…”This was my grandaddy’s farm.”

Marc was actively involved in two-way communication during our brief introduction. With sweat droplets on his brow, he wore a short-sleeved khaki shirt and shorts. He had been working with several groups of visitors and getting the morning activities underway before he took a few moments to talk with us while were were shooting some video.

For the past 25 years, this property has been cultured to become what it is today and truly is something to see. I wasn’t there long for our video shoot, but walking through the tall bamboo, I could hear monkeys, leopards and other wildlife.

We were pressed for time because we had plenty of other shoots along the way, but one memory will stay with me for a good while – even though it was brief. Pam wanted to see the leopards, so we walked through a small grove and there they were – a black leopard and an African leopard basking in the morning sun. Honestly, it didn’t matter to me if there was one or 20, seeing either of these gorgeous cats was immediately spellbinding. When the black cat started to growl I realized this is why you have to see them in person. It’s one thing to see a gorgeous creature like this in your own backyard so to speak. However, it’s priceless to stand right beside one as he growled is predatory presence.

I’ll be back Creative Kingdom Zoo and keep up the great work in Snowflake!