Since the tradition started last year, I felt obligated to do my part to keep the tradition alive. With last years attendees out of town for my father-in-laws birthday in North Carolina, the mantle fell upon me to fetch the peaches for the eventual syrup and jam and associated mess.
My morning did not start out so that the rendezvous point would be easily achieved. My son (the original and younger of the Chick-Fil-A boys) needed to be at work at 9:00. The meeting point was 25 or more minutes away from the restaurant. (This was assuming good traffic and none of the dreaded “special weekend construction projects”.) After picking up cash from the ATM (they don’t take cards at the orchard), I got him to work. The traffic was very cooperative, but not too cooperative. I pulled into the Cracker Barrel at about 9:25. My friend is not know for being early. In fact, rarely does he ever arrive early. If not for his very disciplined spouse, he would have an even worse reputation. A quick text to him, gave me the expected and undesired response:
- Me: Here
- Friend: On the way
- Me: How long?
- Friend: Well, about 20-30 minutes or so.
Since he lives about half an hour away, it was clear what happened.
I am known to go almost nowhere without my book. Considering the company I keep, this does keep me from going crazy. Fortunately, he did arrive within his allotted time. He had to transfer water jugs to my car (we wanted to have room for the peaches). I grabbed my boots and hopped in his car. The car we were blocking in was patience with us as we loaded up and moved out.
The driving conversation to the orchard was light. We were driving up 35 heading to Oklahoma. My daughters have attended quite a few cross country meets up this way. My friend encouraged me to “lie” to him as to when he should arrive at all future meetings to try and compensate for his inability to properly plan his time. I poo-pooed the idea, but did not entirely dismiss it.
We eventually drove off the main road with a country kind of zig-zagging toward the Red River Peach Orchard. Besides many scrap yards and other businesses that often accumulate in somewhat rundown areas, we met these guys by the road.
By the time we arrived at the orchard, it was nearly 11:00. The cool weather was supposed to turn hot later. Since we went north and it was still early in the day, we hoped to have our buckets full before the day got too much older. Lots of things to see there. These are the things that stood out:
- As soon as I got there, I went to the bathroom. The bathroom was fine. After washing my hands, the towel was a shared hand towel. And, tucked in where the towel was hooked was a spider nearly 3 inches across (not the body, but from leg to leg). He/she scurried up the wall. They were willing to share. Being a country boy, I dried my hands and felt inclined to warn the Asian lady w/ child who followed me in the line.
- We received buckets to put our peaches into. They were not the cleanest things. My only real instruction was if you fill the bucket, it will be about 15 lbs. Having been told to get 30 lbs, the math worked out pretty easily. Once both my friend and I had our buckets, we went straight back even though we were told the pickings might be a little better behind where we parked. As we wandered into the peach trees, my friend who had been along when the tradition began the prior year commented on how the peaches appeared quite a bit smaller. The “lack of pruning” theory was proposed by me. We later found out the drought was the largest part of the problem.
- SOOOOO many peaches on the ground. We understood we were not part of the “early pickers”. In fact due to our schedule, the tradition would have died if I have not able to go on this particular weekend. Whether the peaches fell directly to the ground from being overly ripe OR they were picked and discarded after a bad spot or worm hole was found OR they were picked and found to be not quite ripe enough to meet the pickers needs, the accumulation of peaches was fermenting very nicely. (Not being much for alcohol, I did not enjoy the smell.) The smell was so pervasive, it made the whole experience quite a bit less enjoyable. Whether it was whole peaches or peaches trampled under many different feet, the smell will be one of the first things I will think of when preparing for my next visit to the orchard.
- I am not sure if the phenomenon was worse this year than other years (the owner assured me it happens to some extent every year). Nearly every tree had branches snapped off from the trunk. A few trees were completely leveled. None of their branches exceeded 3-4 feet in height. All of them completely snapped off from the base. The peaches remaining on the branches may have still been ripening. I chose to pick fruit more solidly plugged into the mother tree.
- A.) The wildlife did find its need to be orchard dwellers, too. (bird, hoppers, spiders, worm laying bugs) The grasshoppers were hard to miss every step within the knee high grass disrupted some gorging or other malevolent intent. The well-fed jumpers were found covering trees and gnawing annoyingly on many beautiful peaches just as if they were doing that licking techniques older brothers do as they claimed their pieces of chicken etc. Once the “mark” was noticed, I know I wouldn’t pick them. There were more than one broken branch covered in grasshoppers. Other than the obvious consuming of leaves and marking the fruit, their congregating by the dozens made no sense to me. (Are they telling some gossip or just ridiculing the orchard owners for letting them so dominate the place?) A person I spoke to the other morning said chickens are good to have around when the grasshoppers are so thick. Not sure how all of those exoskeletons would have affected the eggs…..a little extra bounce in the yolk…??? B.) The birds were not being the natural predators they should have been! Yes, chickens could have been imported. The dining was plentiful, but the diners were few. There was one lonely dove who was being a good mom to whatever she sat upon. C.) Many of the bugs were assumed to be present. It was only in the later stages there presence was fully felt. Many peaches appeared perfect until the little hole was noticed in the otherwise nearly perfect complexion. In most cases, these nearly sinless tree spawn were tossed into the fermentation basin. Of those that made it into bucket and eventually home, any mercy shed on the imperfect fruit was regretted. In many cases the pit had a fine-wiggly friend tickling the inside of the peach’s inner pit-iness.
- As we walked into the orchard of peach, our eyes were most immediately drawn to the fruits at eye level. As our eye filters became better capable at zeroing in on the “better” rather than the “good”, we realized much of the good was not going to find admittance into our buckets without a little help. Assuming my telekinetic skills were not choosing this moment to reveal themselves to me, it looked like a ladder or climbing skills were going to be necessary. (Based on many of the trees inability to hold securely to their limbs, climbing seemed to be a decision of last resort.) My friend mentioned the orchard last year seemed to have multiple ladders running around. (If this tradition continues next year, the phrase “this year” needs to be much more present. Based on what I experienced this year, a repeat next year will make picking peaches from a bin at a grocery store a much more rewarding experience.) As we got to the back corner of the orchard, a few ladders (maybe 3?) were hidden in the branches of a few of the trees. As we decided which trees to set the ladders up under, the closer we got to the trees, the more difficult it was to find a location where the “top hangers” could be collected. Once the ladder was placed and the obligatory couple of peaches were sacrificed to the fermentation pit by the ladders careless movement, we climbed the ladder and looked at the fruit at eye level. Somehow many of the succulent orbs of flavor became much less desirable treasures when our hands met them. Of course, much of the fruit was deemed at minimum good, and it took up residence in our buckets. The most difficult challenge was claiming a ladder after our first bucket was emptied. The trees at the front of the orchard seemed to have some fruity family members who were destined for a fruit cobbler. My task of securing a ladder to make their wish true ended up taking 10 minutes–the orchard had filled up and others desiring to see if the top fruit might be everything they fantasized it to be. After pushing an older couple off the ladder and telling them peaches were the original forbidden fruit (not really), I wandered back to my friend. The picking finished pretty well with the exception of constantly having to push the would be thieves off or our ladder. (We did pass it on to they guy who asked first.)
- As we checked out, I openly admitted to eating a peach while picking. I had picked a peach with a bad spot. The guy who would eventually take over our ladder when we left, told me to open it up and see it was bad in the middle. Once it was opened, I saw the peach, despite its less than perfect complexion, was perfect for quenching my peach appetite. Apparently, the admission of this fact granted me a discount. My friend whose peaches weighed less than mine ending up paying a little more for his box of peaches.
The drive back was similar to the drive to the orchard, but different. My friend can talk to anybody about anything for an almost endless period of time. So, a little drive was barely a challenge for him. We parted knowing the job of blanching the peaches would be something we both would have to do alone.
While driving home, I did cross an overpass full of citizens waging a poster campaign against illegal aliens. I did honk in support. If they knew about the peach orchard and all of the peaches going unpicked, I wonder if they would have found some other way to spend their Saturday afternoon?