Several years ago, after we’d been living in North Carolina for a while, I read about an annual festival celebrating the beginning of the maple syrup season, somewhere in Virginia. I was working every Saturday at the time, so we didn’t have the opportunity to go, but it always stayed in my mind as something that would be really cool to see.
Last August, when I turned 33, I was feeling pretty bummed about not yet being a dad. For some reason, in my head, because I came along when my mom was 33, I (irrationally?) figured that it made sense for me to become a dad at 33. It’s only March. I’ve still a few months to work on that.
In any case, I have come to realize that I’m definitely a goal-oriented person. So, to help keep myself occupied during the Great Wait, I made a to do list – 100 things I have been wanting to accomplish but haven’t, for whatever reason. Some are not all that big a deal: paint a set of bookcases that we bought used years ago but haven’t painted over the bright red the previous owner used. Other items are sizeable: finally make the trip to the U.K. that *A* and I have been planning for the entirety of our relationship (almost 13 years!)
The list is bucket list-esque, but not with that kind of morbid quality to it. I gave myself a specific time frame – 1000 days. So, from August 27, 1000 days would end on May 23, 2017 (oddly, my sister’s birthday). 100 seemed a nice round number of things to accomplish in that space of time.
I listed the goals numerically, but not in order of importance, save the one thing at the top of the list – reaching my dream of becoming a dad. That’s not entirely within my control, but it’s my greatest goal at this point in my life, so it requires mention at the outset, I figure.
The U.K. trip was one of many trips on the list – travel figured quite largely – there are so many places we want to see. Some of the list is made up of travel we’ve been putting off for several years now – trying to save money for the adoption, for parenthood, and so that I can hopefully be a stay-at-home dad, at least for a while. And we’ve also been putting some travel off because we want to include our Littlest on these trips – I got to see so many places as a kid, and learned so much from seeing all sorts of places. Both *A* and I feel that it’s super important to travel with our kids, and oh, how we long to do so! Rather than put our travels on hold, though, we’re going ahead – finding places we’d like to see a second time with a Littlest or two in tow.
So, that whole backstory about “The 100 Things List” leads up to a particular item on the list that we were able to check off with last weekend’s visit to a maple sugar farm. Ever since reading about maple sugarin’ as a kid (Little House in the Big Woods?) and what with my love of all things maple (I mean, come on, my cat’s name is Maple), I’ve been interested in how people can turn sap into syrup. Initially I thought that Vermont would be the place to go to see this going on, but turns out the mountains of Virginia play host to a handful of small-scale but proud maple sugar farmers.
While this is one of those things we definitely want to experience with our kids, we know we can pretty easily do it again. We went about 4-ish hours north to Highland County, Virginia to their annual Maple Festival. Most of the activities are in what I guess is the county seat, a little town called Monterey, and not far outside town are seven or so farms where maple sugar farmers harvest buckets of sap to boil down and make maple syrup.
From some internet scouting, I found out that the one thing you must get your hands on, other than the locally produced maple syrup, is maple doughnuts. As soon as we got there, we bee-lined it to a little shack run by the local Ruritan Club (*A*’s least favorite word to try to pronounce). The line was already about 20 people long, and people were getting stacks of boxes – like 6 or 7 dozen. 45 minutes in line in a cold drizzle (doughnut dedication!), I secured a box. They were warm, yeasty, and best of all, super maple-y. Krispy Kreme, who? (Actually, other than for our first date, described here, we’re not really Krispy Kreme fans).
Next, we headed up to a newly opened farm called Laurel Fork Sap Suckers, located at 3800′, the highest of the maple sugar farms in the county. They still had about a foot and a half of snow on the ground!
Not many people (in this area, anyway) harvest the sap old-fashioned way, by bucket (sometimes with a folded sheet metal lid). It’s not as efficient as other methods. But something about the old-timey-ness of it is nice.
This farm uses a gravity-flow method, wherein the trees are tapped the old-fashioned way, then connected to each other via a web of plastic tubing. The tubes connect and are routed downhill to the sugar camp to a holding tank, where it then drips into pans to be boiled over a wood fire. When the sap boils off all of the water and reaches a certain boiling point (different from the boiling point of water, 212 degrees, and dependent on elevation), the sap becomes syrup. The variation in the color of the syrup, whether it is light or dark, depends on what time in the several-weeks-long season it is boiled.
Below is where sap is flowing from the holding tank to the huge pan, where the syrup is actually made. The water is being boiled off and the sugar is reducing to a syrup.
The sugar camp house was super smoky from the steam rising off the sap being boiled. And the wood smoke.
This was the first farm we visited, and it looks like this is the general set-up. A couple of farms were a little fancier, one was super old-school, but it’s all the general idea of collecting the sap, boiling off the water and reducing it down to a sugary syrup. We found out that the holy grail of maple syrup is the super dark stuff (think motor oil dark) called Grade B. It’s best for cooking, as the flavor of the lighter stuff is usually just absorbed by the other ingredients.
We drove to another farm that had built a set-up that was, if I heard the demonstrator-guy correctly, built from 18th century plans, and used a 1930s pan for boiling. They didn’t produce syrup for selling, primarily because they did everything the old-school way, and it is terribly inefficient. But, like the demonstrator-guy, who was also the owner, said: if you don’t show people the old way of doing things, then they’re forgotten. They have a beautiful farm, of which I got a few photos. This one’s my favorite.
The beauty of this area was striking, with rolling hills and pastures. We’ll have to come back later in the year when things are greener, or maybe in the fall, when the leaves are turning. The rural backroads were charming – we took these little roads (paved, but with no yellow lines down the middle) from farm to farm. On the way to the next two, we saw a sheep farm, and a pen with lambs and ewes was very close to the road. We pulled over to see them – the lambs were very friendly, nibbling on our fingers through the fence.
Lots of the lambs were black, though most of their moms looked like this one (above). I wonder if they change colors as they get older. Hmm.
They were so active (and vocal!) that it was tough to get a non-blurry picture of them. This (above) is the best I managed before their mom sounded a surprisingly throaty alto blast that apparently was meant as a round-up for her young ‘uns, as they took off after her.
Thus told by a couple of ewe-moms we’d better hit the road, we looked across from where we were standing at the farmhouse that overlooked the farm. It was for sale – built in the early 1900s and included 2.5 acres (the sheep farm was apparently not a part of that sale). If we had any inclination to live in middle-of-not-much Virginia, wowee…it would be perfect. No neighbors for miles. Not much of anything for miles. Check out the view from (very near) their front porch:
Such a beautiful, quiet place. *A* and I keep talking about the possibility of our having a small farm – a garden, chickens, that sort of thing. Maybe one day…
The last couple of farms we visited turned out to be less old-school (think giant industrial tanks) and crowded with church buses, and since we’d been up since 3 o’clock that morning, we decided to head towards home. We headed home a little different direction in order to stop at a general store that was participating in the festival – it was run, I guess, by Amish folks. We ate a bite (excellent barbecue and Brunswick stew), got some maple ice cream (it was soft-serve, but the best soft-serve I’ve ever had) and got back on the road.
It was a sweet (pun intended!) way to spend a Saturday – spending time with *A* and checking out a part of the country we’ve never seen. Good, too, to mark another thing off The List.