You’d never find Sugar Grove, Virginia on a map if you didn’t already know where to look. With only two gas stations, three churches, and maybe a dozen stop signs, it was the very definition of a small country town. It was my hometown, the place where I spent the first eighteen years of my life, and it was located in Jefferson National Forest.
Not only was Sugar Grove located in a national forest, but it was also right in the middle of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. A thirty-minute drive from my house on a hill overlooking the town would lead to endless adventures. The Appalachian Trail. Mount Rogers. About a half dozen U.S. Forest Service campgrounds.
Some of my earliest memories of adventures to the national forest involved a phrase my brother, sister, and I despised, “Up and at ‘em!” Those were the words our parents would scream into our bedrooms at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning. All we wanted was to spend a day playing with our friends or trying to beat the next level of Mario Bros. But my parents had different plans.
Grumbles were plentiful, but they would quickly fade after a hearty breakfast. We all piled into the family car and headed out onto Virginia Highway 16, or simply “The Road,” as everyone called it. It was the only primary way in and out of the town.
A twenty-minute drive in one direction would lead to Marion. That’s where you did business at Walmart, the grocery store, and the pharmacy. Interstate 81 would take us to Bristol and the shopping mall. That’s where we all preferred to go on most weekends.
But a drive in the other direction on the road would lead to outdoor adventures. Heading deeper into the national forest, there were no grocery stores or shopping malls, and fewer private homes. My sister always sat on the left with a book, my brother on the right fast asleep, and I would sit right in the middle of the bench with the best view of the road ahead.
Sometimes, the weekend adventures were short. Racoon Branch Campground, just minutes from the house, had a small concrete ford crossing a shallow creek. I was thrilled to ride through it, and I begged my dad to drive back and forth about three times. Grindstone Campground was the most interesting. The Civilian Conservation Corps had built a stone wading pool alongside a creek near the campground. Open a gate, and cold mountain water would fill the pool for the kids.
Other times, the adventures took us out from sunrise until sunset. One of our most frequent destinations was Grayson Highlands State Park. While we enjoyed various hikes within the park, including my favorite Wilson Creek Trail, our biggest challenge was to hike to nearby Mount Rogers.
At 5,728’, Mount Rogers is the highest point in Virginia. The only way to reach the summit is a hike on the Appalachian Trail. From the Massie Gap Parking Area in the state park, it was a 4.5-mile hike to the summit.
The first time we tried the hike, my brother was just five years old. We didn’t make it very far on that first attempt. Every following summer, we would return to the trail and hike just a bit further than the year before. But the best we ever did was four miles to the Thomas Knob Shelter, where we enjoyed the view of Mount Rogers while eating sandwiches.
We never reached the summit of Mount Rogers, but the second-highest point was something different. A graveled forest service road lead to the top of the exposed Whitetop Mountain at 5,518’. More than a mile above sea level, surrounded by George Washington & Jefferson National Forest, it was one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
My dad was one of those nerds who knew the names of all the stars and constellations. Without any other audience, he would spend hours with my brother, sister, and I naming each one. Although annoying, one of my favorite childhood memories was sitting on Whitetop Mountain well past sunset, looking at a pitch-black sky poked full of twinkling, white holes. This is where I saw the Milky Way Galaxy for the very first time.
Nothing made me feel more isolated from the world than living in Sugar Grove in the winter. Every year, about two or three good storms would dump enough snow and ice to close the roads, cancel school, and cut off our electricity. But despite the isolation, I was thrilled by those epic snowstorms in the mountains.
With our four-wheel drive family SUV, we would go for a drive as far as the Mount Rogers NRA Headquarters. Ice would weigh down the tree limbs, causing them to bend over the road like the roof of a cathedral. The stark, leafless forest made of dark brown tree trunks and limbs contrasted against the white brilliance of the fresh snow.
Kids in Sugar Grove attended kindergarten through eighth grade in the same school building. Going to high school meant a half-hour ride on a bus across the mountain into Marion five days a week. The halfway point of that journey was marked by the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area Headquarters.
The Appalachian Trail passed the headquarters and crossed the road at this point. Just as soon as I had my driver’s license, I would sneak away from the house to go on short hikes on the AT. I discovered the Partnership Shelter behind the headquarters. Thru-hikers have nicknamed it the Taj Mahal because it’s one of the most gorgeous shelters on the national scenic trail.
By the time I graduated high school, I had hiked nearly fifty miles of the Appalachian Trail, visited all the USFS campgrounds, and counted stars at the second-highest point in the state. Despite that, Sugar Grove was a speck of a town everyone I knew was eager to leave. Shortly after my graduation, my family moved to North Carolina and sold my childhood home. I did not return to Sugar Grove for nearly ten years.
It was my high school reunion that finally brought me home again. After a few days of meeting old friends, I headed back to Sugar Grove to spend a few days rediscovering the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest.
I hiked the Appalachian Trail from the Partnership Shelter to Grayson Highlands State Park. After years of my family trying to reach the top of Mount Rogers, and ultimately failing, I finally stood on the summit. I drove the two-lane country roads past small campgrounds and through gorgeous valleys.
For the longest time, I was irritated by my childhood. Except for one, my closest friends were at least a half-hour away. Amusement parks, movie theaters, and shopping malls were mostly things I only saw in the movies.
But now I see it differently. My childhood involved growing up in a national forest. It really wasn’t a bad place to grow up. After all, there are far worse places where I could have lived.