In 2001 the festival was hobbled by lingering anxiety over the terrorist attacks, while rain again spoiled the day in 2002. So come last year, the locals were understandably keen to get back on their record-setting track and set a goal of 25,000. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that Keene faces little competition, though this year it may be seriously challenged by the Camp Sunshine children's charity, which is moving its rival stackfest from Portland, Maine -- where last year's inaugural event tallied a respectable 15,001 -- to Boston Common.)
Although the entire day can be spent without seeing all the contestants, many give it a good try. And there seems to be no end to the creativity of Keene's legion of carvers. Traditional scary and happy faces naturally predominate but are complemented by everything from the Statue of Liberty and Elvis to SpongeBob SquarePants. In addition, there are a number of truly artistic renditions, including landscapes and portraits.
Since every pumpkin is contributed by the community at large, not all the gourds are in good taste. But they all count, and those in attendance eagerly await the lighting and official tallying come nightfall.
At about 6 p.m. it's dark enough to begin the arduous task of illuminating the thousands of jack-o-lanterns. Dozens of candle-wielding volunteers make their way into the ranks and files in what amounts to synchronized arson. As soon as those pumpkins within reach are glowing, a switch is flipped and the ones on the scaffold towers -- which have been strung with yards of white Christmas lights -- spark into supernatural life.
The crowd quickly fans out among the rows to go face-to-face with the grinning gourds. For the next two hours, they'll continue to do so, reassembling at 8:30 in front of Pumpkin Central for the announcement of the official tally.
Soon after, the night sky explodes into orange -- and red, and blue, and lots of other colors as the festival ends with fireworks. By noon the next day, volunteers from more than a dozen local civic and charitable institutions will have disposed of the pumpkins, and Keene will go back to being just another charming New England town.
-- Marshall S. Berdan
Keene, N.H., is about a 12-hour drive from Washington and an hour from Manchester (N.H.) Airport, where round-trip fares from BWI on Southwest begin at $132. The Pumpkin Festival is free. Fest details: 603-358-5344, www.pumpkinfestival.com. For general information about Keene: 603-352-1303, www.keenenh.com.