It's a good thing the roads into Virginia's Highland County are so awful. Slipping around and over Highland's numerous mountains, these roads remind drivers how luxurious the Interstates are, how purely arbitrary is the straight line. Highway Department signs urge caution, 25 mph on some curves, 15 on others. These roads force the traveler to slow down, look around, match the pace of a country place that lingers in an earlier, perhaps gentler time. Snug against the West Virginia line, Highland is the least populated county east of the Mississippi; 2,900 citizens don't crowd 400 square miles of ups, downs and river valleys. Highland's supposed to have the highest mean elevation too, but I doubt it. Jack Mountain isn't quite 4,400 feet, and the others are lower. It's farming country: beef and sheep mostly. No coal. There's quite a bit of lumbering (the National Forest is the biggest landowner in Highland, and the timber companies or the State Game Commission come second). In January, a few hardy souls lay out their lines and hammer in the taps, and by February they're already boiling down the maple water for syrup. That's right: maple syrup in Virginia. For 30 years now, on the second and third weekend in March, Highland has had its Maple Festival, and thousands of visitors cross the mountains and transform the sleepy streets of Monterey, Va. (which boasts the county's lone traffic light) into a mountain carnival, folk festival and craft fair. I've lived in Highland for 17 years and it never fails to astonish me -- how many cars suddenly appear on roads that in cold winter months might not carry a dozen in the daylight. You'd think people would greet the first loosening of winter's bonds by traveling southward, toward a warmer clime, but every March some 50,000 Virginians drive into mountainous country where spring is weeks behind their own. Maple syrup flows best when day temperatures are warm and dip below zero at night. The Maple Festival is important for county service organizations. You can dine with the Stonewall Ruritans (buckwheat cakes, country sausage), the McDowell Fire Department (country ham, Allegheny mountain trout), the Monterey VFD, the Williamsville VFD, the Bolar or Blue Grass Ruritans. You can sample the Methodists' funnel cakes or stand in the long line that leads to the Bolar Ruritans' maple donuts. (Do -- they're terrific.) Of course you can buy maple syrup (about $30 a gallon, $3 a half pint), homemade cakes, breads, apple butter, jams and fresh ground cornmeal from Hinkel Hiner's big red portable mill. It's not pricey. Full meals fetch around $4, and the portions are good. There's a stage set up on the courthouse lawn where Highland County Fiddle and Bow plucks out favorites like "The Old Rugged Cross" and "Wildwood Flower." The High Country Cloggers swirl through their elaborate routines. Admission is free (though courteous visitors might drop a dollar or two into the bucket labeled "equipment fund"). Crafts people line the streets. You can buy local sheepskins from Ginseng Mountain Farm or one of Judy Skeen's lovely wildlife water colors. There are quilts for sale, hand-painted china, Easter chocolates, doll dresses, fireplace mantels and, if you please, "dough art." At the Game Commission exhibit at the high school, the kids can touch a real bearskin. In McDowell, I saw baskets woven from wild grape vines, and somebody was demonstrating a wood-fired furnace. The Maple Syrup Tour starts in McDowell, nine miles east of Monterey on U.S. Route 250. Signs lead you to the county's three major producers of syrup: James White in McDowell, and Rexrode's Sugar Camp and Ivan Puffenbarger near Hightown (six miles west of Monterey). The most modern sugar camp is behind McDowell's Sugar Tree Country Store. James White buys sugar water from all over the county and hauls it here. (You'll pass one of his collecting tanks, a big white plastic thing, near the top of Monterey Mountain.) White separates water from syrup in a machine used to purify brackish water; he reverses the process and keeps the syrup. (It takes 50 gallons of water to make a single gallon of syrup.) At Rexrode's Sugar Camp, I asked the fellow hauling fuel to the evaporator how much he burned in a season. He wiped his forehead. "Right much," he said. And, indeed, the woodshed behind the sugaring house was full of hardwood bolts, floor to roofpeak. Rexrode's taps 900 trees. They'll make 300 to 400 gallons of syrup in a good year and sell it all during the festival. Down the road a few miles, Ivan Puffenbarger was afraid he would run out. Ivan's a one-man industry, selling livestock supplies as well as syruping supplies -- taps, lines, evaporators in this county and over into West Virginia. Some years Ivan makes 1,200 gallons of syrup but this particular year didn't look so good. "Last year they called us from New England," he said, "trying to buy up our syrup to sell there." But Ivan said no. "People come all the way out here for a nice day and they want a little syrup, I'd rather sell it to them," he said. It's a slick operation, thoughtful. There are slots in the pavement around his sugar house so he can run his lines without them getting run over. Ivan also sells a video tape of the syruping. His evaporator looks a bit like one of those machines I remember from 1940s' industrial films: serious, thorough and incomprehensible in some deep way. Years ago, a Sierra Club activist with a stunning ignorance about country ways suggested the federal government should turn all of Highland County into a national park. "Just," he suggested, "phase the people out." As you can imagine, this didn't sit too well with the potential phasees. Much of Highland's population has lived here for generations, some since Washington surveyed the road into the fort at Clover Creek. (If you have four-wheel drive, you can still travel parts of this road; and, I'm here to say, it's a good thing Washington was such a good president because as a road designer he would have starved.) There's not much industry in Highland -- a data-processing company, a sewing plant -- and the water runs clear in the streams. There are a few ugly clearcuts on the mountainsides but not many. The valleys are soft and feminine and lined with small farms, many surrounded with split-rail fences. One of the most beautiful valleys in Virginia connects Hightown with Blue Grass along Route 637. It's a broad valley, and the mountains are clear almost to the tops for grazing. Once at festival time, just beyond the turnoff from U.S. Route 250, I had to stop. Cars were backed up in a real traffic jam and I got out, fearing an accident, but no. It was lambing time, and a public-spirited farmer had fed some fine alfalfa hay along his roadside fence for the ewes and baby lambs. All the kids, of course, had to get out of their cars and try to pet them. Bernice Eubank houses Columbine Crafts in the springhouse behind her home in Blue Grass, and the miniscule shop holds some of the finest artwork for sale at the festival. The prints of native Virginia wildflowers by Sharon Morris Kincheloe are lovely as any you might find in a 19th-century botanical plate ($38, unframed), and I admired James Judy's beautifully finished cherry wall cabinet: $250. In 1904, President Taft stayed at the Highland Inn (then the Monterey Hotel), and Taft was the last president to visit Highland. Sometimes when the election looks close, a Virginia governor will make a brief appearance. The Highland Inn is a rambling old structure, right on Monterey's Main Street, with a second-story porch where you overlook practically everything. The inn is probably the favored place to stay for the festival, but it fills up very early. There's a motel in Monterey, too, and a couple nice B & Bs. After the sun goes down, the only entertainment is in Blue Grass, where the Ruritans host an old-fashioned country dance. Weather determines the crowds. In Highland, this early in the year, you can have snow or icy rain or bright clear days with achingly blue skies. Most Maple Festival visitors make a day trip out of it. They come to Highland early, and after a day in an older, slower America, they drive back across the mountains to a country where most people (I'm told) lock up their houses and a good many take their keys out of their cars. This year's Maple Festival is March 11-12 and March 18-19. For more information, contact the Highland County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 223, Monterey, Va. 24465, (703) 468-2550. Donald McCaig's newest novel is "The Bamboo Cannon."