Pumpkins on the Plains
By Barbara Rodriguez
Travel time from:
Austin – 6.75 hours / Brownsville – 11.5 hours / Dallas – 5.5 hours / El Paso – 6.25 hours /Houston – 9.25 hours / San Antonio – 6.75 hours
Searching for apples, pumpkins and silence in the Panhandle's wide-open spaces.
The lessons harvested in three days of (pumpkin) hunting and (apple) gathering around Lubbock are easily digested: The late afternoon hero light of the Caprock makes any old gourd look good — and a great pumpkin look beatific. From Granny Smiths to Pink Lady apples, what a difference a day (in the picking) makes. The powerful silence of an isolated scenic overlook can be a mother’s best friend. All of which is to say, don’t let a little rain or mud keep you from picking your way through the fall harvest up north.
The meringue of flat-bottomed clouds slowly melts into the sky as we begin our westward climb up and out of the Metroplex. When all things manmade thin out, then fall away, the landscape flattens and horizons broaden. Heading for the Caprock, the world seems a bigger, quieter place. Too quiet, perhaps, for my son, who doesn’t yet quite understand why a 360-degree view to the horizons should inspire deep breaths. The Gameboy goes still for the first time when massive windmills, the sentinels of the Panhandle, rise up just outside of Abilene. “They look like Cyborgs!” Elliott proclaims, awestruck by these harbingers of the winds. Like his engineer dad, Elliott likes machines. And machines that hoard invisible energy evoke the best sort of cartoon plot. He’s with us at last and asking questions.
We’ve set out to do some fall harvesting, but on the drive to Lubbock the emptiness allows my mind to rest in some intangible way. Before the wind turbines, Elliott has been hard-pressed to find beauty in all the nothingness. When the paddles of nopales and twists of mesquite give way to the endless expanse of cotton fields, the snowy white blur hypnotizes him. His father, the German engineer, comes alive. Jurgen has always been impressed by the miles and miles of Texas; now he is dumbfounded by the miles of cotton. He begins peppering me with questions about monoculture, harvest rituals, cotton gins and mills until I can’t provide answers fast enough. “Pull over,” I tell him, and in a ritual I remember from roadtrips with my mother, we spill out for a hands-on encounter with the prickly plant.
It is an experiment in tactile science that never fails to amaze the first timer. The wispy purity of the cotton, the brutal pricks of the husk that nestles it, the seeds like olive pits. Intuitively we all begin carding the cotton, stretching it, testing the tensile strength of the shimmering fibers, attempting to pull free the seeds. I tell my child to imagine picking bole after bole without prying back your cuticles, painstakingly filling a sack until it’s too heavy to even drag, only to be handed an empty one. It is my mother’s story (the daughter of a sharecropper, at Elliott’s age she picked cotton till her fingers bled), and the muddy field takes me back to my brother’s and my first applied learning lesson. Elliott scavenges a branch for show and tell. Jurgen can’t wait to Google up the inner-workings of a cotton gin. Back in the car we talk of Eli Whitney, the 33-year-old inventor of the cotton gin who won fame, but never fortune, from his revolutionary machine.
Up the road, we crawl out of the car to have a closer look at a gin and for the first time totter in the wind that regularly thrashes this part of Texas. As the buttes buckle up and canyons fall away, shoulder-to-shoulder “Cyborgs” appear amid the red rocks. Spying a small farmhouse with no neighbors, Elliott says, “That is the biggest backyard in the world!”
Thunderstorms threaten us like gray wolves, darting in and out of our peripheral vision until at last they lope toward us and pool into a spitting cloud. Weather is a big presence in the Panhandle, and a heavy rain on the Caprock is not unlike an upturned glass on a dinner table. Lubbock’s streets quickly flood above the curbs and red mud swirls when waters recede. Asking only for beds that are high and dry, we opt for a family-friendly motel right out of the ’50s. When the rain stops we dash out to visit Prairie Dog Town at Mackenzie park (which also features Joyland, where brash retro colors and bumper cars make for the best sort of old-fashioned amusement park). Alas, the dogs are on a sabbatical of sorts as their stomping (scurrying, digging) grounds are undergoing renovation. We do stop to see the replica of Stonehenge, rendered as rusted steel monoliths outside a new amphitheater.
Back in town, we spend a happy hour wandering among performances being staged between the gentrified Depot District’s clubs and restaurants and the Buddy Holly Center (just look for the giant black glasses frames). Thanks perhaps to Holly’s legacy, many musicians and festivals find their way to Lubbock. At dinnertime, we land at Hub City Brewery (voted the number-one small brewery at the Great American Beer Festival). From the house-brew list we choose to sample Wild Bill’s Yellow House Wheat, a tasty German Hefeweizen-style ale best tarted-up with a squeeze of lemon. The beer and soft pretzels get a hearty nod from a very persnickety husband who, up to now, hasn’t met a pretzel he likes this side of the Rhine. When the sausages pass muster too, we pass the mustard and agree it’s been a very good day.
The morning breeze is brisk, and although it’s not raining yet, fierce weather looks sure to chase us all day. To his chagrin, Elliott, the perennial barefoot boy, is forced into fleece. When I nag him to don a hat, he assures me that he’s already as warm as “fresh-baked toast.” It’s a good thing, because the winds off the staked plains are piercing, indeed. Fortification, my husband shouts, and I interpret this as a cry to begin our day at the Llano Estacado Winery, where Grape Day festivities promise ice carving, cheese carving and wine tastings, although somehow I believe the only carving on Jurgen’s mind is carving out enough space in the trunk for a case of port (Llano Estacado’s is award-winning). His logic is sound: visit the winery first and the port will take space precedence over the pumpkins we plan to stalk later. Oh, wise man. On the way to the winery, his imagination is captured by the great walking watering systems that roll through the Panhandle fields like mechanical spiders. The third time Jurgen pulls off the road for a closer look, Elliott reminds him that the ice carver is waiting.
Blown into the winery, we find we are just in time. Robert Tuthill Jr. has his chain saw revved up to take down a block of ice the size of a glacier. Drawn to the noise and the potential for disaster or discomfort, my son throws himself at the sculptor’s feet, only to be implored to move back as impressive flumes of ice fly. That the carver’s tools include chisels the size of baseball bats defies the fineness of his work. When Tuthill smoothes the curves of his sculptured windmill with a blowtorch, Elliott’s eyes go wide. I can see he’s got his father’s genes. It’s time to move on.
Try to drive as the crow flies and you soon discover that a web of railroad tracks hold the Panhandle to the pan of Texas. We pass a broad field of rust-colored grain that tells me sorghum is no longer just the red-headed stepchild of the farming industry. Equally beautiful in the shafts of hero light are ranks of sunflowers, heads bowed, heavy with seed. But the identity of the crowned prince of local crops is apparent when we reach the county seat of Floydada, the Pumpkin Capital of Texas. Here it’s all pumpkins, all the time. Every porch in the tiny town boasts a collection of the biggest, shiniest, showiest pumpkins we’ve ever seen. Town pride aside, we think the fact that everyone in town is wearing orange is a little over the top until we discover — oh happy days! — it’s the weekend of the Floydada Pumpkin Festival. It’s a small-town festival at its very best: a diverse and happy crowd; great out-of-hand eats; art and exhibit booths packed around a tidy town square. And in a one-two punch of delight, we discover a climbing wall and peanut brittle the size of manhole covers. After a lunch of roasted corn and quesadillas, we spurn the wagons loaded with prewrangled pumpkins and head out to pick our own in the field.
The weather has cleared, our bellies are full and, under clouds splayed like lazy starfish, we head to Assiter’s Pumpkin Ranch. According to the state’s agriculture Web site, Floyd County plants more than 2,000 acres in pumpkins each year. That’s a lot of jack-o’-lanterns — one acre can produce about 20,000 pounds of pumpkins. The decision by Panhandle farmers to grow more gourds after a 2002 hail storm shredded 150,000 acres of cotton bumped Texas to number four in U.S. commercial pumpkin production. To Tim Assiter, a second-generation pumpkin grower, it’s just a family business, because his son and his grandchildren all work in this patch of great pumpkin heaven. Elliott can hardly contain himself when we pull up to a field filled with pumpkins the size of doghouses. We tell him he can keep any pumpkin he can get to the car. This challenge immediately rules out the biggest of the Big Macs, a 260-pound prize winner he can’t even get his arms around.
As much as we admire the clean and shiny gift-shop pumpkins, we’ve set our caps for the wild, catch-them-if-you-can gourds. We can see them from the roadside when we move our car closer to the fields for easier toting, but after two days of rain the fields are so muddy that saner folks stick with the prepicked specimens. Determined, mother and son set out — new shoes and all — for the field where we will stalk our prey, wrestle them free from their vines and sever the prickly stems with our teeth. Okay, I overstate. Elliott is delighted to know that pumpkin stems are so tough, a brief, but joyous encounter with a pocket knife will be required. Jurgen, who, we discover too many slippery steps later, has the knife, waits by the car. Those bad knees come in handy for lots of excused absences, I think. Elliott is gaining height as his shoes now collect great pads of mud as he flits like a maddened bee from gourd to gourd. My stylish, impractical mules are being sucked off my feet with every sloshing step.
Pumpkins aren’t simply orange anymore; the great blue and ivory-white fairy tale pumpkins are as lovely as Cinderella’s carriage. I’m drawn to every shade of ochre, cream and mellow apricot, while Elliott’s picks run to hunter-vest orange. Our selection process is drawing us deeper into the fields, as the pumpkin just over the next crest of muddy waves always looks better. “How do you tell a good one?” Elliott shouts over his shoulder. “Whichever one speaks to you,” I tell him. Exhausted, I begin to hear the whispers of those closest to me. Stopping to smell the pumpkin flowers I take a moment to dream of sautéed blossoms stuffed with cheese, a Mexican specialty that means no late season blooms go to waste.
Having selected a half dozen pumpkins each, we realize we still have to carry them to the car — which is now a mere dot on the horizon. This revelation quiets us both, but determination wins the day, if not my husband’s admiration, when we heave the trunk-full (at less than $20, quite a bargain). After Jurgen has scraped our shoes and banished them to the trunk, he asks Elliott how he made his selections. “The oranger they were, the better,” he said. “I like ones that make better Jack-o’-lanterns.” I, of course, wanted one of every shape and color. Because my selection process proved fickle, I am guilty, Elliott points out, of cutting gourds that didn’t make my final cull. “You know you murdered a pumpkin for nothing, right?”
What was I thinking when I determined we didn’t need to be at Apple Country Orchards on the first day of Granny Smith season? As usual, I was planning my days around meals. And the bakery/café at Apple Country seemed just the place to be for a Sunday lunch. Hey, I thought, why fight the Saturday picking crowds. Duh. Because what the apple-picking in-crowd knows is the time to be at the orchard is when the gates swing open the first day of any picking season (they grow 30 varieties). Be there Johnny-Appleseed-on-the-spot because the second day offers slim pickins. There are more than 6,000 trees in the 18-year-old orchard, but only a percentage of them are in season at any one time. Those trees ripe for the picking can be plucked clean in a busy day.
When we arrive, the skies are spitting and even the smell of cinnamon from the bakery does little to lift our spirits once the attendant tells us there was a swarm of people through the orchard yesterday. “I don’t know if anything is left,” she says. We grab the wheeled bucket provided and navigate the maze of trees looking for the flags that signal rows open to picking. We pass tree after empty tree; beyond cordoned rows, we can see trees heavy with Pink Lady apples, forbidden sirens all. Succumb to the temptations of out-of-season picking and the price automatically doubles. The ripening Pink Lady apples are next week’s treasures.
Padding up and down the wood chip paths, we search out the flags and yesterday’s holy grail: the Granny Smith. Small dings become inconsequential as we realize the chances of scoring any robust, ripe fruits are slim to none. The smell of apples mounded below the trees, fruit damaged by birds or insects or otherwise rejected, has the kick of hard cider. By now we’ve learned that anything we see on the trees is likely only there because someone else has rejected it. Still, despite the odds, our little bucket seems to be filling up and better yet, we’re having a blast. On Jurgen’s shoulders, Elliott can reach fruit others missed, but both father and son are doing more eating than picking (the orchard is organic because the owners know you will munch into almost as many as you pick). The lowest branches mean easy picking even for Elliott, who is slightly disappointed that no death-defying tree climbing or ladders are involved. It’s as exciting as a good Easter egg hunt; the sighting of a “keeper” is followed by a shrill cry of “I found one!”
Our antics disturb no one. We are completely alone as an icy rain begins to pelt. Our basket fills with a few hard-won grannies and an odd assortment of overlooked stragglers from September’s picks — Braeburns, Fujis and to everyone’s astonishment, golden delicious. Our definition of a good apple is forever changed from grocery store perfection to any with good color, aroma, heft and no holes. As we pay for our mismatched batch, we feel each one is a hard-earned treasure at a pittance: 12 1/2 pounds of fruits for 79 cents a pound. Another five bucks buys a first-rate barbecue lunch and fresh apple cake. As extended families pack the place I learn my instincts were correct: The orchard is a favorite Sunday lunch spot. All and all, we’ve only one regret: too late to help Jurgen’s aching shoulders we discover the availability of a long-handled picking tool not unlike a lacrosse stick.
Before leaving town we decide to brief ourselves on just what makes the Cyborgs tick. The American Wind Power Center, on 28 breezy acres of rolling park land in Lubbock’s Yellow House Canyon, features more than 120 rare and restored windmills. It is an otherworldly landscape filled with gigantic whirligigs. The whoop and whine are hypnotic. There’s something for everyone here, from explications of the workings for the science-minded to a selection of the highly collectible windmill weights for the artistic. I sop up colorful anecdotes of grateful birds (windmills make great nesting grounds where trees are scarce) and the family history of the early African-American rancher John D.W. Wallace. Elliott says being surrounded by the many mills is like being inside a clockwork, but I find it somehow calming.
Back on the road, we stop along Highway 84 at a historic marker touting the site of C.W. Post’s dynamite experiment. What boy wouldn’t love that teaser? From 1911 to 1914 Post, believing that booming battles stimulated rain, sought to re-create the din of cannon fire using kites bearing dynamite. The drought-relief efforts of the Texas farm colonizer and cereal foods millionaire were said to be 40 percent effective — but then isn’t there always a 40 percent chance of rain in the forecast? Reluctant to head straight for home, we determine to coondog a bit and digest our weekend’s experiences. We pass a high-stepping road runner, count scissor tails, play bingo with the hawks, consider the worth of a vulture’s work. I remark that listening to the silence is what makes the wide open spaces of West Texas most special to me. Elliott says he just doesn’t get it.
We make a game of spotting the landmark buttes, mesas and rock piles that resemble ice cream cones and a cow’s head. At Duffy’s Peak, (a landmark still so prominent it figures in local transit), we stop to listen to the silence. Elliott says he doesn’t know what it is he hears. “That’s silence,” I tell him. “But how can you hear silence?” he wants to know. “Well, because it really isn’t silent. It’s full of all sorts of sounds you can hear for the first time because of all the sounds you aren’t hearing.” My explanation leaves him uninspired. At a scenic overlook on Farm Road 211 he comes up with his own solution. “Leave me here,” he says. “Alone.” Although there have been times that the idea of abandoning my child in a highway rest stop has held a certain appeal, I’m really not that sort of mom. Really. But he’s got many hours of car time ahead of him, and I can understand the appeal of his request.
We agree that we will allow him the illusion of being alone. He will take a seat at the edge of the turnout farthest away from the road and we will climb in the car and pull out of the stop, but only a few feet. We will still be able to see him. We cut the engine and Elliott turns to face the wide open expanse. With no machine or human in his sight, he will have the sense that he is alone among the red rocks and sailing hawks. I am only 20 feet away, but something about his little back framed by so much open space makes my heart beat a little faster. In the 10 minutes we sit and watch him sit and watch, not another car passes. He never looks back. He never stirs. Then, in a completely unexpected gift two deer jump the fence just feet from him. We all shake our heads as if waking from a dream. “Wahoo!” Elliott shouts as we roll in to pick him up. “Let’s do it again!” I know he has heard the silence when the Gameboy stays packed away all the way home.
Lubbock offers every class of lodging. We stayed at the Country Inn, 4105 19th St., Lubbock; (806) 795-5271; toll-free, (877) 795-5271. Old-fashioned, family friendly, very affordable motel.
Llano Estacado Winery was founded in 1976. The elevation (3,200 feet) and the region’s warm days and cool nights, sandy loam soil and low humidity come together to create grapes for some fine wines. Located 5 miles south of Loop 289 on U.S. Highway 87, then 3.2 miles east on FM 1585; (806) 745-2258; toll free, (800) 634-3854; <www.llanowine.com>. Complimentary tours and wine tastings from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday; and noon – 5 p.m., Sunday. Grape Day festivities are usually the first weekend in October; check the Web site for dates.
Caprock Winery is another nearby vineyard with a stellar reputation. U.S. Highway 87 and Woodrow Road; (806) 863-2704; (806) 546-WINE; <www.caprockwinery.com>.
American Wind Power Center, 1701 Canyon Lake Drive; open year-round Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sundays, 2 p.m. – 5 p.m., from May through August; (806) 747-8734; <www.windmill.com> .
Apple Country at Hi-Plains Orchards
Highway 62/82 4 miles east of Idalou; Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.– 6 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.– 5 p.m.; (806) 892-2961; <www.applecountryorchards.com> Call or check the Web site for the picking schedule and prices, July through November.
Prairie Dog Town, Mackenzie Park, Renovations are now complete, so the village, first built in the 1930s, now boasts new shade structures and landscaping to make all the little critters happy.
Depot Entertainment District, 19th at I-27, includes Hub City Brewery, Bleacher’s Sport Café and other clubs and restaurants for live music and good eats.
Assiter Pumpkin Ranch, located 11 miles south of Floydada on Highway 62/207; approximately 35 minutes from Loop 289 in Lubbock; (806) 983-3322; <www.floydadapumpkins.com>. According to Tim Assiter’s wife, Gina, the pumpkin ranch has one of its largest picking days the first Saturday in October when the ranch also hosts a huge celebration on the courthouse lawn in Floydada. You can’t miss the ranch. Gina says, “Just look for the big red barn and all those little orange globes.”