For all the comfort nature provides—a respite from stress, a break in routine, a midweek thrill—there’s also a mysterious side to the outdoors. Once night falls, crooked tree branches become like arms reaching for hikers’ shoulders. Shadows dance between darkened trunks. Derelict buildings raise questions: Who or what used to live here?
That intrigue and uncertainty is woven into the plotline of Rockfish Gap, a podcast three Virginia teens produced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to fuel their creativity while being stuck inside. The eight-episode fictional drama, which debuted in July, investigates the whereabouts of four high school students who disappear while on a camping trip in Rockfish Gap, an area where the Blue Ridge Mountains join the Shenandoah Valley. Set in present day, the students vanish while searching for an abandoned building known as the “white house of the woods.” According to the show’s local lore, a man by the name of Philius Nunn built the home in the early 1900s as a retreat during a flu outbreak. The home is rumored to have healing powers, including the potential to cure people of COVID-19. But when the students disappear on their quest, a new investigation ensues to find out what happened to them.
Brothers Colter and Charlie Adams, who are the show’s writers and showrunners, said they came up with the idea for a podcast—their first—after their high school closed in March due to the pandemic. They were inspired by REI’s Camp Monsters podcast and the investigative journalism podcast, Serial. The outdoor mystery felt fitting during a time when so many were adapting to staying inside.
“Having this be about characters who are trying to escape, taking it too far and go missing … is a really cool way to parallel a lot of the feelings people have right now being stuck in one place and not being able to do that,” Colter Adams, 18, said. “As a community of artists writing about a bunch of kids who feel so stuck, that was just really appealing for us.”
An audio drama made the most sense given the restrictions on interacting with people outside their home. Eighteen-year-old Andrew Nguyen, a classmate and filmmaker, joined the brothers as writer and executive producer shortly after their first episode aired. Together, they fleshed out the plot and further developed the characters. Colter and Charlie Adams provided the voices of missing campers Aaron Nielson and Jesse Ferguson, respectively. They recruited their other cast members from two local high schools, a local theater group and Colter Adams’ band, Indigo Boulevard.
“We were basically shut inside our houses for 24 hours a day, and we wanted some sort of creative escape where we could build a world and cast of characters that were limited by the same elements of quarantine that we were,” Colter Adams said.
Drawing on their own experiences outdoors and the history of their home state made the drama feel especially personal. While far less ominous than the podcast’s plot, their adventures outside have involved everything from lake swims and treehouse hangouts to explorations of abandoned homes deep in the woods. They also pull in bits of history, like the decline of the coal industry in the Appalachian region and the 1918 flu epidemic.
“When you go into the woods, you never know quite who or what you might find,” said Charlie Adams, 17. “It’s a setting for your imagination to paint a story and be free. I think that’s so liberating at a time when we’re all confined to our homes or our offices or one room in our house.”
Setting the podcast near the Shenandoah Valley is another nod to their childhoods. The Adams bothers grew up visiting Shenandoah National Park, running through its thick forest and using fallen pine needles as their action figures. Nguyen spent his childhood taking hiking trips with his family. For him, the outdoors was a creative place, where he’d pretend nature treks were Indiana Jones-level adventures.
Nestled among white pines, an abandoned home near their grandparents’ Minnesota cabin by Lake Superior inspired the “white house of the woods.” Gargoyle heads, large lanterns and door knockers shaped like claws adorned the imposing structure. As kids, the brothers spent time peering into its windows and exploring its grounds, letting their imaginations run wild.
“It’s this untouched mansion that sort of overlooks this cliff where the waves pound every day,” Charlie Adams said. “When I try to imagine a lot of the [podcast] plot and a lot of the emotions that are in this project, I sort of go back there in my mind, and that’s true for a lot of the other natural places that I’ve experienced in terms of their inspiration for me.”
Colter and Charlie Adams want the podcast to reflect their admiration for nature. They hope it influences people to have their own imaginative adventures outside—especially as people are exploring the outdoors in new ways or for the first time amidst the pandemic. He said they’re planning to continue the podcast, which he said received positive feedback from listeners and garnered more than 110,000 downloads.
“We want people to listen to Rockfish Gap and go have a wilderness experience where they discover something,” Colter Adams said.