When we lived in Vermont, there were two big fall rituals that we observed without fail. In late September, we’d go to a pick-your-own apple orchard and gorge ourselves on Cortland apples. And in mid-October, we’d go to the pumpkin patch and pick the biggest pumpkins we could find for carving.
Pick-your-own (PYO) is a lot of fun. Sure, a cynic might take the view that we’re paying for the privilege of doing farm labor, but there is something to be said for getting out of the supermarket and browsing a pumpkin patch, blueberry grove, or apple orchard to find your food with your own eyes and hands. There’s the earthy greenness combined with a festive air, as people happily go digging through the branches and leaves to find the perfect fruit. There’s the sense of getting closer to the source of your food, buying it right off the farm rather than picking through fruit that came in on a jet from Argentina. As Linus so aptly described them, pumpkin patches — and other farms — are places where you can still find sincerity.
We often grew our own pumpkins in Vermont, since we had acreage. Our pumpkin patch occupied half of our 50×50 ft garden, and except for the year when we grew sugar pumpkins that the rabbits liked, we usually harvested a couple dozen pumpkins of various sizes. Helping find pumpkins among the giant green leaves, and stack them in the wheelbarrow, was Emma’s first outdoor job at the age of two.
Now we are suburbanites, and our backyard is not yet ready for gardening, so we decided to take part of Saturday to drive down to a farm about forty miles south of Tucson for a little PYO action. We had promised Emma the opportunity to repeat the pumpkin-picking tradition and since we were visiting Tumacacori National Historic Park anyway, the farm was right up the road.
Let me testify here: pumpkin picking in the desert is not the same as in New England. We weren’t foolish enough to expect a grassy hillside but nothing prepared us for the horror of this experience. As we left the car in the dusty field that served as parking lot, a man loading pumpkins into his car with a somewhat sour face warned us to grab the first pumpkins we saw. “Last year they cut down the thistles … it wasn’t like this. I don’t know why they didn’t this year. Don’t go into the patch, just pick the ones up front.”
We had no idea what he was talking about. He appeared to be a disgruntled customer, and that seemed a shame on a sunny afternoon at a pick-your-own-farm. Meanwhile, throngs of families with small children were converging on the haywagon that was carting people off to the further reaches of the farm. We hustled over and got in line.
After a few minutes, we realized that we could walk to the drop-off point for the haywagon in much less time than we would be waiting in line, so we started off. In three minutes we were at the designated spot, and ready to tackle the pumpkins.
Except for one thing: this didn’t look like the pumpkin patches we remembered. There were weedy plants everywhere obscuring the pumpkins. These weeds were dry and looked like Russian Sage (tumbleweed) but tall instead of bush-shaped. It looked like a demented hayfield. Still, naive as we were, we plunged into the field in search of pumpkins.
Have you ever accidentally stood atop a red ant hill while wearing sandals? Ever waded waist-deep into a field of stinging nettles, while wearing shorts? Ever walked into a live electric fence? I have, and I can tell you that all of those experiences were sheer pleasure compared to the experience of walking into this pumpkin patch full of weeds.
It was an excruciating form of torture. With the first gentle brush, the weeds shed thousands of tiny spikes which immediately embedded themselves in our clothing and skin. Our mistake was immediately evident: at dozens of points on our bodies we were being impaled by enemies too multitudinous to fight.
Every step ground the little spikes further into my socks, drove them deeper into my shirt, and increased the threshold of pain. We were all struck with an immediate desire to flee this field of nightmares, but escape was just as excruciating. Only by remaining motionless could we get relative relief, and that was not a useful option.
At this point, I realized that we weren’t the only ones suffering in the field. Nobody was smiling; only men with blue jeans and boots were adequately protected, and they were in the field looking for pumpkins on the orders of their family members, who were standing safely in the dusty tractor road. I looked at my short black socks, and saw that they were tan with thousands of loosely attached spikes. I was not dressed for this battle, and neither were Eleanor and Emma, who were now struggling to find a safe place to stand without pain. Like quicksand victims, struggling only hastened our fate.
Pick your own pumpkins? At this point we wanted nothing more than to jump up on that haywagon and head to the nearest concrete-lined supermarket. But we had come all this way, forty miles from Tucson, half a mile down a one-lane dirt road, and $7 for admission. We came to pick pumpkins in a field, and by golly, we were going to pick pumpkins, or die trying.
I can only assume that the same attitude was driving the other victims of this wholesome family experience, because like us, they were wading into the cruel weeds and picking out pumpkins with fixed and determined grimaces on their faces.
In the end, we came out with three pumpkins in our arms, and thousands of brutal thorns embedded in our clothing. The pumpkins were a bit small for carving but nonetheless symbols of our bravery and willingness to bear up against pain in the honorable quest for holiday gourds.
I cannot say that this experience gave us that special feeling of having once again shared a treasured tradition. I think our emotions initially ran more to a sense of thankfulness for mere survival. By the time we reached the parking lot, we had shed most of the irritants attached to us and were back to smiling, but it was the smile of the person who has just left the dentist’s office after a root canal. Next year, we’ll look for a pumpkin patch with a little more sincerity — and a lot fewer thorns.