There’s nothing quite like the Appalachian Mountains in the autumn. The trees along the legendary Blue Ridge Parkway start turning to their rich, deep and warm colors at the end of September, giving way to the cool, brisk nights of October. Ah, yes, the harvest season is here. As the leaves fall and nights turn cooler, families of all shapes and sizes gather for the beginning of the winter holiday season. As soon as the bounteous meal is served up on Thanksgiving Day, the cool, autumn mountain air gives way to cold. Despite what the calendar says, winter approaches fast.

It’s this sense of calm, down home appeal that is driving an influx of residents to North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains. For decades the most western parts of the Tar Heel State have served as the home for two differing worlds — the descendants of the original backwoods pioneers (you know, the ones who gave birth to moonshining and bluegrass) and the well-to-do aristocrats who built large, sumptuous and luxury vacation homes (do the Vanderbilts come to mind?).

In 2008, gays and lesbians are helping to drive not only an influx of more progressive ideals and culture, but also an increase in area home and land values. As more folks have moved into the largely forgotten, rural areas of the Appalachian Mountains, prices have skyrocketed.

My own family knows this from experience. Back in 1989, my grandfather bought and later deeded to his daughters a 59-acre plot of land placed squarely on the side of one of the most prestigious looking peaks in the tiny Virginia town of Lambsburg, a little less than 20 minutes from Mt. Airy, N.C. What started out as land worth little more than $100,000 is now worth just about a half million.

Larger homes are being built. More people are moving in. With it will eventually come economic revitalization to a people who’ve for years known a “downtown” consisting only of one church, a post office, a Coca-Cola vending machine and a barbershop.

As I grew up, we visited the family mountain almost every week in the summer. Sometimes we stayed for a month or more. In the autumn and winter, we’d visit less often, but every time we traveled up that old U.S. 52 and that two-lane, pathetic excuse for a “highway,” I fell more passionately for the colors and smells of autumn in the mountains.

Eventually, I turned 16, got my grandpa’s old truck and slapped my gaudy rainbow stickers on the tailgate (and, looking back, they were quite unsightly). Surprisingly, the good folk of Lambsburg weren’t all that offended and many embraced me as their fellow mountaineer.

As in my childhood experiences, gays and lesbians of all stripes are falling in love with the timeless Appalachians.

Located just outside of the bustling, mountain college town of Boone, the charming and welcoming Carefree Cove community beckons gay and lesbian homebuyers with promises of breathtaking mountain views and humble Appalachian living. The community was dreamed up by Triad-area developers CGR Development, owned by lesbian partners Cathy Groene and Gina Razete.

As billed on their website, the 165-acre Carefree Cove is “a welcoming neighborhood where you can be yourself is the other part of a place called home.”

The community hosts special holiday retreats and other communal events designed to keep a sense of neighborly friendship alive among the development’s residents, many of whom have committed their lives to ensuring LGBT equality in their everyday homes back “in the city.”

Real estate agent Scott MacIntosh of Blowing Rock Investment Properties also says gays and lesbians are looking toward the mountains for a chance to invest for the future. He estimated a good 15-20 percent of his client base is gay.

“They are looking for second homes and investment properties that will produce rental incomes and subsidize the cost of the properties,” MacIntosh says. “At least 90-95 perecent are coming up here to find property that will produce revenue. These are all second homes and they want to make sure they are in a strong equity position.”

Like many in the real estate industry, MacIntosh says he’s also been hit by the recent economic troubles. But he also thinks the good old Tar Heel State has done at least moderately well when compared to other markets.

“We haven’t felt an impact as severe as the rest of the country,” he says. “The majority of our clients are from the Charlotte and Raleigh areas and they’re coming from markets that have continued to excel. We’ve been holding our own. Our decline has been slight, 10-15 percent, but it is nothing like other markets that have seen as much decline as 50 percent.”

MacIntosh agrees that as more gays move in, and as college towns like Boone continue to grow, more progressive tones and flavors will flourish.

“Blowing Rock, notoriously, has been the resort for the elite throughout its history,” he says. “What happens is there is an exposure to more here and more tolerance, especially with the impact of Appalachian State University and its cultural exposure.”

Appalachian State, one of the most westerly-placed public universities in the state, has seen tremendous growth on LGBT inclusion, recently adding gender-identity to its already sexual orientation-inclusive non-discrimination policy and opening a new LGBT student center.

“As more gays and lesbian move up here, I think we’ll see more following them,” MacIntosh says. “I’ve yet to find anything here that hasn’t been embracing. Gays and lesbians will appreciate that as they come up here for this lifestyle and to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.”

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.