So who drives 8 hours – one way – to see 29,381 jack-o-lanterns?
I do. Sarah, a friend of mine, lives in Keene, New Hampshire. Each year, they have a pumpkin festival. Keene is a small university city (population about 24,000) that looks like it tumbled from a John Irving novel. For 21 years now, the residents go into overdrive preparing for the culmination of the Pumpkin Festival: the lighting of the pumpkins. Residents, schools, businesses, visitors and at least one Canadian carve pumpkins that are hoisted up onto scaffolding that fills the downtown square.
Thousands of people throng through the core, little (and some not so little) kids in their costumes, the shops and restaurants jammed with an easy flow of festival goers. I hate crowds; I love this place.
There is no better time of year for a road trip than the fall, especially if you’re going to wind through New England at the peak of colour and unpredictable weather. I requested a press car that was easy on gas and would facilitate travel in an unfamiliar place; they gave me a blaze yellow Mustang Boss 302 – an 8 cylinder muscle car with no GPS.
I hesitated only for a moment before realizing this was in fact the perfect car. I would have to be engaged with every moment of the drive and appreciate the road as it unfurled ahead of me. I didn’t want to be cocooned or coddled, and I realized with a smile that hooking up my phone would be pointless – I’d never hear much conversation over that engine. Perfect excuse to run away, something that appeals to me very much in general, and always at this time of year.
My directionally challenged ways are a running joke among friends, though getting lost has only ever brought me interesting moments. I printed out directions and told the kids I was vaguely going down and over to the right, and a number where I would eventually end up.
Landing in Keene without a GPS and with a faulty set of instructions (yes, Dad, you’re right, I should have had a folding map), I finally just stumbled onto Sarah’s home. Another friend from Florida, Jodi, joined us a few hours later.
Pumpkins must be carved for a Pumpkin Festival. I can only draw one thing – a cat from the rear – guaranteeing the Canadian contribution would not be meriting many oohs or ahhs. We dutifully carried our gourds to the town square to be counted and displayed, grown women pretending for a weekend that our only duties and obligations were to slowing down our lives and kicking up pretty leaves. We sat together in the balcony of the Colonial Theater in Keene, its doors thrown open each Festival as a nonstop loop of Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1930s and 40s plays. We ate popcorn with real butter, to remind ourselves that a little bit of real will always outweigh a bigger piece of fake.
There is something replenishing about moving slowly. From poking around a farmer’s market to carving pumpkins to discussing the merits of Vermont cheese and New Hampshire apples. From sitting in front of a huge bonfire, listening to snippets of conversations you are welcome to join or let remain the background murmur of your own thoughts.
I’ll keep returning to Keene for as many years as Sarah will have me. I will let 48 hours feel like many more, and I will treasure the silence of my thoughts and the thunder of a car. I will be reminded I can’t run away from myself.
And I will carve another cat.