Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sweet and Sunny

Although there was a little chill in the air, bright sunny skies and buckwheat pancakes with maple syrup brought a big crowd to Highland County, Virginia for the 54th Annual Highland Maple Festival on its opening day. "Virginia's Little Switzerland" threw open the doors and "Virginia's Best Kept Mountain Secret" didn't quite seem seem quite so secret as hundreds of cars and trucks jammed the roads leading into Monterey, the typically quiet county seat which has only a blinking light at the intersection of routes 220 and 250.

We got up early and traveled back roads through Deerfield to Warm Springs and then straight up Route 220 to to Bolar Ruritan Club for pancakes, syrup, and sausage. Although we arrived shortly after they opened, there was a line of hungry folks in the cool morning air. But, the bright sun warmed our faces and the line moved steadily and we soon joined two couples from Lynchburg - they don't let a seat go unfilled in the jammed packed dining area. Both the buttermilk pancakes and buckwheat  pancakes were great, but I think the table consensus was... buckwheat!! The sausage was good, but not the best I've ever had - everybody has their favorite seasoning blend it seems. Proceeds from the meals over the two weekends support scholarships for students from Highland and Bath counties - or "snobs" in the world according to Rick Santorum.... what a dumb cluck!

After stuffing ourselves we traveled through the tiny village of Bolar to Southernmost Maple Products where we found them using their (unique for Virginia) piggy-back evaporator. Maple BBQ was available and there were a few craft vendors. Traveling the quiet backroads we spotted many buckets still hanging on spiles with sap still dripping although many of the sugar camps that aren't on the tour finished production last month. Over the years we have visited all of the camps on the tour.

As we approached Monterey the quiet backroads gave way to a huge traffic jam, something that only happens during the Maple Festival. State troopers were took over for the flashing light to bring some order to the chaos. Fortunately we were able to slip our small car in a parking spot about halfway between "downtown" and the high school.
Walking towards the courthouse lawn proved a bit challenging as we dodged rambling groups of people eating maple ice cream or maple donuts. Lots of young families with kids in strollers or senior citizens (like us) in clusters slowly checking out the booths selling food and crafts. Still full from breakfast, we passed on the donuts this time. We then hiked to the schools where two gyms were packed with vendors. In addition to various maple products a number of craft artists (many from outside Highland County) were selling wood products, art, herbal remedies, jewelry, leather goods, and all the other items you typically see at crafts fairs - but I will admit that, unlike some fairs I have visited, all of these craftsmen were selling excellent quality goods. In addition to the breakfast, we left a few dollars in Highland County buying a small piece of art, some jewelry, and two quarts of maple syrup.

Heading east on Rt. 250 we took a chance that friends who own a place near McDowell would be home... we found them relaxing and watching the ACC tournament after spending six hours that morning serving pancakes. As with the fellow we bought maple syrup from, their production was down somewhat this year. Reasons are unclear, but the warmer than usual winter with lack of significant snowfalls is cited.
We've probably been to the Maple Festival half a dozen times starting in the early 1970s and I think this was most accommodating weather we have ever enjoyed. More than once we bundled up under cloudy skies with blowing snow biting the cheeks. We enjoyed the pancakes at Bolar Ruritan Club, just as we have in Monterey, McDowell, and Blue Grass during other visits. The Maple Festival is fun and a huge boost to the local economy, but we most enjoy Highland's unique treasures when all the flatlanders are back at home. Luckily, we have the friends with a place near McDowell and others near Blue Grass so we can find an "excuse" to visit from time to time.... and I learned that another work colleague just bought a place near Bolar! And what are some of those unique treasures...?
  • Virginia's least populated county with about 2,300 people (population explodes during the festival),
  • Highland has one of the highest average elevations east of the Mississippi River,
  • The Battle of McDowell took place here on May 8, 1862,
  • Fishing, hunting, hiking, camping opportunities are spectacular,
  • The headwaters of both the James River and the Potomac River are in the county,
  • Wide open spaces.
If you missed the Highland Maple Festival this weekend, you can check it out again on March 17-18 when the weather looks to again be great with temps in the 70s!

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