Is it just me, or does Fall uniquely evoke a sense of childhood nostalgia?
The first days of school bundled up in your new (or new-to-you) winter coat. Cattle trailers moving here and there on the roads like busy worker ants. Apple butter and pumpkins. The sights and smells of wood stoves and outdoor furnaces firing up to combat the first chills of autumn. Hearing gunshots blast through the mountains – hunters gathering meat for their families. Looking forward to dressing up on Halloween, family gatherings at Thanksgiving, and all the magic of Christmas in the distance.
If you were a Highland County kid that grew up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, your memories will mirror some of the ones Crysta and I have. We hope these little tidbits of recollection will bring smiles to your faces like they do ours.
In 1970s and 80s Highland County, Deer Season was a National Holiday. That’s right … in Capital Letters. Yeah, buddy! Two weeks in November set aside for Virginians to hunt our native Whitetail Deer.
We even closed public schools for opening week! And, after that first week, when schools were back in session, the boys would be excused early to hunt.” After all, it wasn’t odd to see a loaded gun rack in the back of a student’s pick-up truck.
The county’s population also swelled significantly during this time from all the men (and their buddies) coming in. Hunting cabins were filled to capacity, and some brought campers. A drive across the mountains to Staunton would reveal tents and tiny camps set up all along the roadsides. And, the occasional dance would bring hunters (and their spirits) out to have a ball.
There were deer hanging in every yard. If you drove into Monterey in the evenings, town was packed. Men were there to either gossip, tell hunting stories, check-in their deer, or get supper. Back then, there were no cell phones and only one payphone booth in Monterey. As a result, there would often be a line down the sidewalk of men waiting to call home and check in with their wives.
Firewood for the Winter
Feel that chill? Yeah… that’s Mother Nature’s alarm clock warning you to get the move on if you haven’t already gotten your firewood for the winter. Before you know it, that quaint little chill in the air will fall into freezing (or below freezing) temps. Yes, a good many households in and around Highland County are still heated with wood stoves much like they have been for hundreds of years. Families and neighbors often pull together to get the job done. Most times, the boys run the chainsaws while the girls man the wood splitter. (However, many a Highland County woman can hold her own with a chainsaw as well!) A friend trades a friend winter horse hay for the use of a wood splitter. Local churches manage a firewood ministry for those who can’t gather their own. Neighbor helping neighbor like it always has been. Even the kids pitched in when they could.
Gathering firewood isn’t easy. In fact, it can be a huge pain in the butt. You start cutting and splitting in the Summer heat, and you’d better have it all done no later than October’s end in case winter decided to come early. (In the early 90’s and prior, all bets were off after the Highland County Fair at the end of August!) But, when snow is falling outside, there’s nothing as cozy as wood heat especially if it’s inside a large, stone fireplace.
Mom Cooking in the Kitchen
I don’t know why, but food just seemed to smell better in the Fall. Roast Beef in the crockpot with cut potatoes and carrots. Thanksgiving ham with sage stuffing. Buttery, melt-in-your-mouth mashed potatoes. (No lumps!) Cakes, cookies, and candies. McCormick spices filled the air. Now, mind you, this was normal, day-to-day food. When family holiday gatherings rolled around, things got serious. A ham AND turkey. Three different varieties of southern, cheese-covered casseroles. Potatoes? Take your pick: scalloped, mashed, fried, cottaged, baked, or boiled. Bread and butter. Salads, both tossed and something fancy with the likes of cranberries and a vinaigrette dressing. A meal fit for kings! (Or, the Irish and Scottish chieftains many of us descend from.)
Finish your dinner? Check. Go back for seconds? Check. All done? Nope! Here come the desserts!
Pumpkin pie, Martha Washington candies (Crysta’s favorite), Pumpkin Rolls, an assortment of cookies, maybe a cake. But, the coveted of all sweets was Mom’s unique recipe for Potato candies. You know? The cream and peanut butter pinwheel things? But, Mom’s didn’t have potato in them. In our household, we knew these descendants as “Peanut Butter and Cream Swirls.” Mom mixed together confectioners sugar, butter, and vanilla to create the sweets I (Dorothy) waited all year for. I would eat a dinner plate full of them in one sitting. How I didn’t get sick as a dog, I’ll never know.
Playing in the Leaves
Many kids from mid- and pre-1990s started their school career at the Highland Elementary School building, which is now The Highland Center. When Fall came, school started. And, when school started, the leaves fell.
We affectionately referred to the big yard in front of the school as “The Bowl,” and years ago, there were a lot more trees surrounding it. Those mammoth Maples shed their leaves almost as if to provide us with Fall fun under the shelter of their bare branches.
Occasionally, Mr. Jim White, our P.E. teacher, would rake the leaves up just to let us kids jump around in them destroying his pretty piles. I can still smell the rustic aroma of the leaves, hear the wild giggles of my classmates, and see crinkled leaves caught in the girls’ long hair.
Seeing Your Breath in September
Nowadays, warm clouds may flow from your breath closer to November or December, but back in the day, kids stood at the end of their driveways in September, a body of poofy winter coat with rhythmic, foggy puffs emerging. And, this wasn’t the visible air you see when you push a big breath out from the warm depths of your throat. Nope, this was thick bursts of white as a result of normal breathing. And, those temps lasted all the way through Maple Festival in March.
I don’t ever remember being extremely cold when I was a kid playing outside in the Fall, but looking back, I remember how bundled up our precious teachers were while they waited for us to play. (My elementary school librarian, Mrs. Nancy Vance, got it right. Her thick, knee-length burgundy coat always looked so cozy.)
The feelings Fall can bring are refreshing, cozy, nostalgic, envigorating, primal… Long time traditions resurface. Living and surviving is taken back to its roots. Family helps family, neighbor helps neighbor. The cold air wakes the spirit alive in all living things from deer to humans to transforming trees coming alive from the death of their foliage. As pure and raw as Highland County feels on a normal day, the crispness of Autumn elevates the wilds of this land to a whole new level.