By Cathy Voisard
It is mid-October, and once again I drive over Highway 92, heading toward my hometown of Half Moon Bay, California. Although I moved away from this idyllic coastal town decades ago, no other place on earth feels more like home than this quaint town. The fog and the foghorns, the cypress trees poised as if frozen along the salty cliffs, the smell of eucalyptus trees, the succulents flowering by the sand dunes, the gushing dark ocean frothing like a good cappuccino; all of it reminds me of home.
But nothing more than what I see now: field after field filled with bright orange orbs; vivid florescent squashes that dot the roadside each autumn. Pumpkin patch after pumpkin patch stretch as far as the eye can see. It's October in Half Moon Bay and time for the Pumpkin Festival.
I have attended every Pumpkin Festival since the very first, making my trek annually for nearly forty-five years. While the first official Pumpkin Festival was held in 1971, there was a little-known festival the year before that was held in the backyard of the old school on 6th Street in Montara. Our friend lived there with her family, and they invited us. My sister and I were just children; we painted rocks we found at the beach, glued felt on the back, and sold them as paper weights alongside the many other artists invited to the festival to sell their wares.
The official festival began a year later, originally to raise funds for the revitalization of historic Main Street, the center of our town, which was trapped in some kind of a time warp with many buildings unchanged since the 1800s. With the street showing signs of decay, and with an abundance of pumpkin patches in the area, a committee organized an old fashioned harvest festival to raise money to renovate and paint the buildings. The first festival attracted 30,000 people. Today it attracts more than 200,000 each year.
Grinning from ear to ear, I flew toward home. Having grown up on the coast, I wasn't so foolish as to drive over on Saturday morning, along with multitudes of other patrons on their way to this event. I knew the two primary roads leading into the coastal community, Highway 92 and Devil's Slide, would have a long train of patient people waiting to get into town on Saturday morning and to go home on Sunday night. But because my brother and sister both still live there, I can stay with either, and I stay all weekend long. I am driving in on Friday afternoon, to meet with other women friends for our annual ritual of pumpkin facials at a local spa prior to the festival.
Pumpkin slathered on our faces would only start my favorite weekend of the year. From there it would be everything pumpkin, from pumpkin martinis at a friend's private party to pumpkin soup and pumpkin bread. Pumpkin sculptures and pumpkin carvings. The Great Pumpkin Parade, featuring the winner of the weigh-off champion great pumpkin. Harvest inspired art, such as glass and velvet pumpkins sold by local artisans. Roasted pumpkin seeds and foods made to look like pumpkins. Pumpkin pie eating contests and pumpkin beer.
For thousands of tourists who flock to the festival each year, it's a grand weekend of great food, music, arts and crafts, parades, and haunted houses. But for me and those of us who grew up on the coast side, the festival is a reunion. Schoolmates from decades gone by are around every corner, and reconnecting with old friends, from those running stands to performing on stage, is a large part of the festival for many of us.
"I'm almost home," I say to myself as I wind merrily down the highway toward the ocean. As I drive, I spot the famous horse sculpture at Lemos Farm, repainted each month or so to reflect different holidays and seasons. I smile as I see it painted in autumn colors and pull over and snap a picture.
I look across the street and see Pastorinos, also decorated in full harvest splendor, and cross the highway to take my first walk through a pumpkin patch. I can't help but smile as I stroll through acres of these dazzling vegetables in a variety of colors, mostly bright orange like a carrot, but others in a variety of hues, from dark orange sugar pumpkins to others that are red, ginger, yellow, white and green.
Pumpkins, which come in every size and shape from the giant to the tiny and the perfectly round to the oblong, are each perfect in their own way. I just must find exactly the right one to bring home and later to carve for Halloween.
As I stroll through the squashes, I think back on my childhood. Each October we raided the pumpkin patches, never even thinking of it as stealing. Acres and acres of them stretched out in every field, behind every house. The day after Halloween, Highway 1 would lay littered with broken pumpkins and pumpkin guts from the hundreds thrown out of cars and at houses and at each other, all in good fun.
But those days are long behind me now. I would never be so crass to take or throw this thing of beauty. I find myself staring down at this beautiful blossom of nature with great reverence; I am astonished by its perfection and its splendor. A particularly sweet pumpkin catches my eye, and I run my hands over it; I feel its firm, cold flesh and touch its gritty, coarse stalk. This pumpkin was to be admired, even worshipped. And it was coming home with me.
Once I purchased it, and with the handsome globe of vegetation securely in the backseat of my car, I continued my journey toward Half Moon Bay, toward the festival, and toward home.
"Ode to the pumpkin," I whisper as I pull onto Main Street. Although the street is decorated from end to end, all is quiet and serene. It is the calm before the storm. Half Moon Bay will receive its throngs of pumpkin worshipers in the morning.
I am proud my hometown pays homage to such an extraordinary sphere of flamboyant vegetation. Ode to the pumpkin indeed.
The 43rd annual Art & Pumpkin Festival is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday on Main Street in Half Moon Bay. Admission is free. Parade, with Grand Marshal J.T. Snow of the S.F. Giants, is at noon Saturday. More information on attractions, entertainment, parking and food here.