The Best Watoga Bicycle Christmas Story Ever!

By John C. Dean
Contributing Writer

In the heart of the lush, expansive landscape enveloping Watoga State Park, nestled within the sturdy embrace of a small log cabin, the Dean family carved out a life steeped in simplicity and resilience. Vernon and Vada, the pillars of the family, faced the challenges of modest means with unwavering determination, weaving a tapestry of love and fortitude that bound them together forever.

As the seasons changed, the Dean family weathered the ebb and flow of life in the Mountain State’s wilderness. The small, early 1930’s CCC-constructed cabin, though weathered, stood as a testament to the strength of family bonds, the resilience found in nature, and the enduring spirit of those who called Watoga State Park their home.

That summer of 1967 was etched into the memories of the Deans as a season of both struggle and beauty. The log cabin, though humble, stood as a haven amidst the towering pine trees that painted the landscape with a kaleidoscope of greens. The air was alive with the sweet melodies of songbirds and the gentle rustle of leaves, while the babbling brooks whispered tales of the park’s enduring secrets.

Vada, a woman of quiet strength, devoted her days to ensuring her children had more than just the necessities. Her hands, calloused from hard work, mirrored the resilience of her soul. Each morning, she would venture to the park, donned in a faded apron, to clean cabins. The fruits of her labor, not only in wages but also in the intangible warmth of providing for her family, spoke volumes of her love.

I am the eighth child in the seemingly endless, voluminous Dean clan. For years, I have felt the rhythm of life in the park coursing through my veins. The struggles faced by my father to put food on the table only deepened dad’s appreciation for the natural wonders surrounding my family. Each fall I admired the leaves’ orange, red and yellow hues of various maple and oak trees, dancing in the gentle breeze.

The park, sprawling across 10,000 acres of West Virginia’s picturesque terrain, was a playground for the Dean children. Every corner revealed a new adventure, a secret waiting to be discovered. The flora and fauna of Watoga State Park painted a vibrant canvas of colors and scents, creating a backdrop for a childhood that, despite its hardships, was nothing short of idyllic.

Amidst the challenges, the summer of 1967 witnessed the joyous union of Shirley Juanita Dean, the second eldest of Vernon’s daughters, to her beau Thomas Edward Wilson. Their wedding, a unique ceremony for its time, was captured by the click of a Polaroid Instamatic in the backyard of the majestic park. The love between Shirley and Tom, sealed amidst the scent of mid-June wildflowers, echoed the enduring magic of Watoga State Park.

As the seasons changed, the Dean family weathered the ebb and flow of life in the Mountain State’s wilderness. The small, early 1930’s CCC-constructed cabin, though weathered, stood as a testament to the strength of family bonds, the resilience found in nature, and the enduring spirit of those who called Watoga State Park their home.

Later that year, at the tender age of six, I harbored a deep love for the holiday season. The aroma of freshly baked butterscotch cookies wafted through the small rustic cabin, creating an irresistible allure that lingered in my memory for years to come. But the magic of Christmas didn’t stop there. Every December, the peaks of meringue atop my favorite pie—lemon meringue—seemed to appear as if by magic, a culinary delight that never failed to captivate me.

In the wake of their June wedding, Tom and Shirley Wilson embarked on a journey of saving, their hearts set on a grand gesture that would light up mine and Ronnie’s faces.

For six months, they carefully tucked away every spare penny, their shared determination fostering dreams of two shining bicycles beneath the Christmas tree. The coveted blue 5-speed Schwinn Stingray bicycles, emblematic of an era, became the object of the newlywed’s relentless thrift.

When Christmas morning 1967 dawned, the air was thick with anticipation, and the cabin echoed with the joyous sound of ripping wrapping paper. Mine and Ronnie’s eyes widened as we beheld the gleaming bikes, adorned with oversized, bright red Christmas bows. Our excitement was palpable, and the room erupted with jubilant cheers. I was unable to contain my elation, bouncing up and down like a giant on a pogo stick, exclaiming that it was the best Christmas ever.

Those bicycles became the vessels of countless adventures with Ronnie and I pedaling joyously through the scenic trails of Watoga State Park, our laughter almost nonstop.

The smiles that graced Tom and Shirley’s faces that day were as enduring as the memories they had created, a testament to the pure magic of giving and the indelible joy found in the simplest of pleasures.

Year after year following the “best bicycle Christmas never to be forgotten,” we all continued to gather around the hearth. Mom would weave a tale of the sacred night I was born, specifically at 9 p.m. on December 25th. The story was sprinkled with enchanting details of that magical Christmas Eve, a narrative I still hug close to my heart just like I did with a treasured teddy bear when I was younger. Year after year, at the end of the story, mom would always deliver a one-liner that echoed through the cozy cabin, “Johnny, you were the best Christmas present I ever received.”

However, Christmas in the Dean’s home also meant indulging in another cherished tradition—popcorn. My love for this simple yet delightful snack stemmed from mom’s pregnancy. Mom, along with my older brother Gilbert, devoured bowl after bowl of this homemade creation, popped to perfection as only she could do in a stainless-steel kettle with either butter or Crisco cooking oil. The crowning touch? A generous layer of salt and a more than adequate slathering of butter from my grandparents’ farm in the picturesque valley bordering the park, was a winter delicacy that brought an extra layer of joy to my family.

Fast forward to June 2022—almost to the exact day that Shirley Juanita and Thomas Edward vowed to stay “together till death do us part.” Amid the perfect weather of the New River Gorge canyons, a bittersweet reality cast its ominous shadow upon me. Today, I face a starkly different Christmas than the one I cherished almost 55 years earlier. Dealing with the double blow of a COVID-19 infection and an almost-incurable cancer diagnosis on the same day, I now approach Christmas from a different perspective. Facing Stage 4, inoperable pancreatic cancer, I am looking at this year’s Christmas from a different perspective. Memories of past Christmases mingle with the present, and my request for gifts has evolved. In past years, I never asked for Christmas or birthday gifts. Last year, I openly sought the power of prayers to see another Christmas, and those prayers have indeed been answered.

Throughout 2023, I expressed heartfelt gratitude to all who have supported me through this challenging journey. Every day I continue to thank generous folks who have helped keep me afloat, my chin barely above exorbitant medical expenses and travel costs as well as the thin line of bankruptcy I oftentimes find myself drifting toward. Countless well-wishers still encourage me to continue doing what I love—writing.

This Christmas and throughout most of 2023, my most cherished gift wasn’t material; it was the ability to continue weaving tales about Watoga. My inner being wanted to complete a project that has been a long-standing, decades-long dream—a collaborative effort involving 25 writers, seven photographers, and numerous others who are generously donating their time and talents—to assemble a book about Watoga, its people, its history, its flora and fauna, and so much more.

Looking ahead to 2024, I see this project coming to fruition, a testament to the awe-inspiring resilience that defined not just my story but the stories of others who oftentimes felt like they once again were stepping back in time, relishing childhood, adolescence and teenage memories as if those memorable moments had just occurred.

In this year’s Watoga Christmas Story, I gleefully extend unfeigned blessings to everyone nearby, across America and in other countries. Thank you, Jesus, for a Christmas birthday, another year of breathing in fresh mountain air at Watoga and the unwavering support that has fueled my passion for storytelling.

As the warmth of the hearth and the glow of past Christmas lights envelop strands of homemade popcorn on my imaginary Christmas tree this year, my request for a Christmas miracle in 2023 or 2024 is still possible. It is a wish for continued stories, shared moments of love and peace throughout the world and the enduring magic of Watoga State Park.

During this year’s festive season, I exclaim loudly with holiday enthusiasm, “God bless you and Merry Christmas, everyone!

To learn more about some of my adventures growing up in Watoga State Park, please visit

My cancer journey can be viewed at this web site.

For 43 years, my dad worked in a number of different positions in Watoga State Park. A bench in dad’s honor provides a breathtaking view of T.M. Cheek Memorial.

John is a member of the Watoga State Park Foundation Board of Directors. Neither his opinions nor his writings reflect opinions of the board of directors.

Photo courtesy of Dean family. (L-R) Ronnie, Johnny, Vicki and Vada Dean at Christmas time in Watoga State Park.