#28: (Attempt to) Pick apples on a warm autumn afternoon
When I woke up this morning I knew it was going to be a “I have to be outside today” day just by the way the light was streaming through the blinds in our bedroom. As I do every morning, I made my way downstairs in my jammies and bed-head hair and let the dog out for his morning “business.” When I opened the door, I felt something strange—warmth radiating from the sun. I know I exaggerate when I say “strange;” it has only been brisk for a week or so but I’ve already grown cranky from it. So today’s balmy weather struck me right in the happy chord. It was time to buck up and do what I’d been talking about doing for weeks—head to the South and pick apples. (And by “South,” I mean waaay dooown in Northern Virginia, of course.)
I fired up the computer and whipped up some research. Well, actually, I spent a good hour plus plotting a google map with apple orchards, restaurants, and the best route for cruising down Skyline Drive. As noon approached, I woke up my grumpy husband (he hates being woken up “early” on weekends). I nudged and nagged until he rolled out of bed.
We left shortly after 1PM for our big adventure. It was warm enough to enjoy the drive with the windows all the way down, even when cruising at faster speeds on the highway. I played navigator as my printouts flapped in the wind. My husband said:
You’d better watch, those things are going to fly out the window.”
I scoffed. Things don’t actually fly out the window in real life! My life is funny and silly and embarrassing but not quite to that level of slapstick comedy, right? A few minutes later I needed to recheck the directions to find out what exit number to look for on Route 66. I flipped through the pages (2 pages of maps, 1 of written directions). I found the sheet with my handwritten notes of directions and scanned it. I followed my annotations down the page with my finger. And then, without warning, a gust of wind blew up . . . and whisked my page of directions right out of the car. It flew out the window. I was dumbfounded. I still can’t really believe that it actually happened; I mean, stuff like that doesn’t actually happen, does it? Well, apparently it does. At least to me.
Luckily my dismay didn’t last long. I jotted down what I could remember of the directions on the remaining two sheets I held in my hand and I sheepishly rolled my window up half-mast.
A not-so-short drive later (made all the longer by a longstanding lack of musical capability in our aging auto), we pulled in to the first orchard on the map. Gliding along a pleasantly sloping road, we cruised past a few cows here, a few sheep there. The air was fresh (aside from the scent of cow) and I breathed in the crisp, country atmosphere. Adjacent to the gravel parking area sat several large wooden crates filled high with shiny red and green apples. My mouth watered as I approached a man who looked like he could help. He explained to us some of the qualities of the different apple varieties—Granny Smith, Stayman, York—each more delicious-looking than the next. He seemed quite content to carry on about the ready-picked apples but that wasn’t what we were there for. I interjected (politely, of course):
That’s great but, um, . . . where are the pick-your-own apples located?”
He chuckled—chuckled, I tell you!—before gesturing at yonder hills and explaining:
Well, the orchards are up there. The trees have been picked darn clean. If you’re able find anything, it’s free.”
While he wasn’t cruel in his delivery, I could still feel my heart sink with the news. He gave me a knowing and sympathetic look. As if to ease my suffering, he pulled a map of the farm out of his back pocket and pointed out where we were free to drive and “hunt” for apples. I nearly tackled him with glee.
Onward, ho!” I thought. (Even I am not cheesy enough to have said that out loud in front of a stranger.)
And so we went, over the hills and not-so-far away. We drove for a few minutes up and down the hilly dirt path until we came to what looked like a suitable clearing. We hadn’t seen any other cars near the orchards and so my optimist side thought “wow, we might really strike gold here if no one else has bothered to ask about pick-your-own opportunities” while my practical side thought “dangnabit, I can’t believe I’m the only one who didn’t get the memo that the only apples left in this orchard are the shriveled up rotting things lying beneath the lonely trees.” The reality turned out to be sort of both. There were a few lost souls wandering around the rows of bare apple trees, calling to one another:
Oooh! I think I see one! Oh, no wait . . . Nope. It’s black on one side and has a worm sticking out of the other.”
At first we thought we’d have to settle for a few marble-sized specimens we stumbled upon. And then I spotted it: dangling just within arms reach, a bright and shiny mirage in the midst of an apple-free desert.
Plucking the fruit from its home, I squealed with delight. No sooner had I documented my booty with a photo when I succumbed to temptation. A regular Eve in the Garden of Eden, I defied my better judgment and dug in. I thought the first bite would be sour and that I would learn quickly what a mistake it is to give in to one’s gut-derived whims. But I was pleasantly surprised when my miniature apple tasted just like . . . a full sized apple! I was amazed.
That one bite was enough to sustain me through another hour of hunting and munching on mini-fruits. In the meantime, my husband was busy foraging ever-larger apples from ever-higher tree limbs. I was lucky to be hunting for apples with an eagle-eyed, monkey-limbed, mule-determined partner. We made our way to a section of Granny Smith trees and that’s where he hit upon the mother lode: a medium-sized apple, hidden among the leaves. I turns out that this variety sports trees with fuller foliage and the pickers who came before had passed over the fine specimen, hidden within a leafy camouflage. He had come upon the apple not through visual inspection, but by sticking his hands full-force into the bushy limb and feeling around sight-unseen. I watched in horror, thinking of all the inchworms and baby birds I’d squish with my fingers should I try such a tactic. But the approach worked wonders for him (fearless, I tell you). Of course we ate that apple too before waltzing back to the car with a bounty of fruit overflowing from our pockets and wide grins on our faces.
We pulled out of the orchard filled with a bloated sense of accomplishment and a malnourished sense of disappointment. We had defied the odds and left with enough apples to sustain a small child for at least a couple of hours. The efforts left us ravenous and we headed to one of the pit stops recommended on a chow hound Web site: the Apple House. I’d rather not go into too much detail about our experience but let me tell you this: avoid the bison burger, the pulled pork sandwich, the house-made chips, and the much-touted donuts. The milkshakes are worth a stop but if you’re looking for an actual meal, I’d look elsewhere.
Our spirits unshaken by the alarmingly poor food, we carried onwards towards our second destination: the lovely Skyline Drive within Shenandoah National Park. Now, this is my kind of hiking! My kind of hiking in that it isn’t really hiking at all, it’s driving. We covered 30+ miles in about an hour, stopping to enjoy the dozens of scenic overlooks and snapping photos like they were going out of style. The many-colored leaves created a stunning palette for our viewing pleasure. I gleefully threw my arms up through the sunroof and out the passenger-side window, attempting to capture the sheer joy of slicing through the mountainous terrain in a sports car. (Luckily, the camera didn’t go the way of my printed directions.) Despite the technicolor trees, however, my favorite photo is a mostly-gray-scale piece depicting the layers upon layers of mountains jutting up and out into the distance.
As we lost the sun to the evening, we headed back north towards home with visions of a wonderful autumn day dancing in our heads. And then we hit traffic on 66. At 6PM on a Saturday. For no apparent reason. Just like we had at 2PM that same day for no apparent reason (and in the opposite direction).
Lessons learned: Don’t be size-ist; tiny apples can be just a scrumptious as larger apples. Don’t give up. And avoid Route 66 whenever possible.