Autumnal Alternatives to Apple Acquistion

I know I talk way too much about how much I hate this time of year.  I will say again much of that talk is less about real issues with the time of year and more about the end of summer and the constant hyping of Halloween, pumpkin spice, and what I call the "Basic Blather" about crunchy air and sweaters.  Regardless, I think some of my concerns are legitimate.  I don't like the dark and the weather is rarely as perfect as everyone wants it to be.  Most of all, I take issue with the traffic.

This past weekend I was driving home after a long day at the barn.  I had plans for the evening and I just wanted to go home and relax for a bit before going back out again.  I was cruising down Route 94 when traffic went from a clip to a creep. 

Where was the backup coming from?  It was coming from the traffic pouring out of the road leading from Ochs Orchard to the traffic light.  Once I was past that traffic jam, I drove by Pennings Orchard.  While there were no traffic jams there, I could see just how full the immense parking lot was.  Any other time of year you might see a good number of cars in front of the market, but this day the lot was full from end to end.

The culprit for this massive conglomeration of cars?  Apple picking.

I remain a vocal critic of the apple picking phenomenon.  To me it's a contrived activity.  The bourgeois take a day "in the country" to pick fruit readily available in farmers' markets because it feels like some kind of authentic experience.  It feels close to nature.  To me it's just being duped into doing farm labor and paying for the privilege.  I suppose with immigration being so tightly controlled, farmers no longer having a steady supply of labor.   Having the masses come and pick fruit themselves as some kind of family activity must feel like a dream solution. 

So here is the authentic country experience.  You get in your car and drive to the orchard with hundreds of other apple pickers.  The traffic finally oozes into the orchard parking lot.  Then you have to search for a space on the (likely unpaved) expanse of parking area.  The attendants direct you to a space two states away from the orchard.

You get your bushel bag and picking device and trudge to the trees.  At first it's fun to use your device. You begin your adventure as a discerning customer, looking for the best apples. (Don't forget the photos for the 'Gram.)  Soon you have a dozen apples and this is getting tiresome.  Your kids are bored.  Still, you have to keep going to fill that bag because you can't just pick a few apples.  You have to buy them by the bushel and you need to pick your thirty dollar's worth.  Keep going until you fill that thirty-dollar bag, kids.

Finally your bag is filled and you need to soothe your cranky kids.  They beg for candy apples (ka-ching), a pony ride (ka-ching), and a cider doughnut (ka-ching), some money for pellets to feeds the goats (ka-ching) and face painting (ka-ching).  You see the apple jelly and apple pies.  They look good.  Should you buy some? (ka-ching)?  How about the cutsey crafts like aprons and potholders in an apple motif (ka-ching)? Maybe you will make a pie in the next couple of weeks.*  You pass on the pie and save ten bucks there. Good for you.  Too bad you had to have the dozen cider doughnuts, the jelly, and the potholders (ka-ching).

After you have paid for your apples, your treats, and your souvenirs, you make that long trek back to your car.  As you drive out, you have to wait in line while attendants search your car for contraband apples (because a bushel for a small family is never enough).  Finally you're back on the road with another two hundred apple pickers.  Your kids get over the sugar high and nap while you deal with the traffic snarl on the way home.

Was it really worth it?  Did you have your Authentic Fall Experience?  Are you closer to nature? Did you eat that entire bushel of apples? If you haven't done it yet, is it still something you want to do in the future?

If you answered no, then I would like to offer some non-apple-related activities that will fill a day nicely, get you outside, and help you enjoy those last few nice days on the calendar before winter sets in.  This list is completely non-snarky and I believe can provide you with some ideas that will take you away from the contrived experiences and crowds of the orchards.

Visit a farmers' market

"Hey Rachel," you protest.  "You said this list wasn't snarky."  I know it sounds rather obvious, and it's not exactly an adventure, but if locally grown produce and supporting local farmers are important to you, please don't neglect the farmers' markets.  You will find many of the same apple varieties (and the cider, and often the doughnuts) that you will find at the orchards, but without the traffic and parking headaches.  Maybe the farmers' markets in your town isn't that great.  Start researching the best ones and make a road trip out of it.

Visit a state park

I am willing to bet that somewhere within driving distance of your home is a beautiful state park you never bothered to visit. State parks offer plenty of chances to get close to nature with hiking trails and recreational facilities.  What better way is there to view fall leaves than to hike through a woodland path?  If you have kids who don't like walking around looking at leaves, then try to incorporate some other activities.  Bring a bird book and some binoculars and see what they can spot. Have a natural scavenger hunt.  If there is a shoreline or other open space, toss a Frisbee or fly a kite.  Older kids who are in decent shape might enjoy a trail with a tricky, steep, rock scramble

Go to the Zoo

People tend to consider zoos a summer activity and that's when zoos are most crowded.  In the cooler weather, animals are more active and more likely to be out and visible. Seeing exotic animals live is an excellent way to be closer to nature.  If you live in the NYC area, The Bronx Zoo will not just give you a chance to view wildlife, but also boasts beautiful, tree-lined paths that wind through the exhibits.  It is a tranquil natural oasis in the summer.  It is even more beautiful when the leaves have changed.  If you're not in NY, I'm sure there is a zoo near you that will give you a similar experience.  If it's not as hot out, the kids will be less likely to beg for ice cream and Slurpees. (Please make sure it's a reputable zoo.)

Visit a Botanical Garden

It does seem like a contradiction to go into, or stay in, the big city when you want to be out close to nature, but a botanical garden can provide you with all the nature and stunning displays of flora you crave.  Not only will you see the best of the season's plants blooming, but you can be educated about them.  Again, New Yorkers have an advantage with the New York Botanical Garden, which features conservatory displays of multiple ecosystems, quiet woodland paths, and many themed outdoor gardens as well as beautiful works of art throughout the conservatory.  Other gardens offer other beautiful features and amenities.  The Chicago Botanic Garden is another beautiful place to spend a fall day.

Visit a historic house

Sometime in the history of your region, a man became wealthy and he built a mansion or castle for himself.  His descendants couldn't pay for the upkeep, so it was donated to a historic trust or purchased by a non-profit preservation organization. Now, you, the unwashed masses, can wander through its halls in a way you never could a hundred years ago.   Take a tour and get a history lesson. Find out how the beautiful people lived (and get the dirt).  Most importantly, mansions like this have beautiful grounds and gardens.  Your family can enjoy plenty of seasonal foliage and flora.  If you want a more intense history lesson, there are historic houses that serve as "living history" museums where you can also enjoy craft demos and reenactments. These are always better at harvest time.

Visit a local winery or brewery

If you don't have kids, this is a perfect way to get outside and enjoy nature without having to make massive purchases.  Stroll through vineyards, have a picnic, and enjoy a tasting and a demo.  Have a designated driver if you don't plan to spit.

Then again, these can be as crowded as orchards in the fall.  They just have fewer kids.  Drunk adults may possibly be worse than bored kids on a candy apple high.  

Have lunch at a farm-to-table restaurant

Would you like to enjoy harvest season by actually eating the harvest?  F2T restaurants are almost always charming and you will have the same feeling of pride and responsibility of supporting local farmers that you will get from picking apples and visiting farmers' markets.  You can combine your lunch with any number of activities listed here.

Don't limit yourself to just one fall activity.  There is so much more out there than apple picking.  Go enjoy the season for yourself.

*You won't.  Trust me.  I don't even bake a lot of apple pie and I love to bake.  Give up the fantasy.

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