Where: Millsboro, Del.
Why: Outlet shopping, barnyard animals and thousands of flying pumpkins.
How Far: About 110 miles, or 21/2 hours from Washington.
Forget jack-o'-lanterns and roasted pumpkin seeds -- for the hundreds of competitors and tens of thousands of spectators at the World Championship Punkin Chunkin in Millsboro, Del., there's only one thing a pumpkin is good for: Blasting it through the air. Over the course of this annual three-day event -- this year's is Friday through Nov. 6 -- 100 teams equipped with pumpkin-launching machines vie to see whose gourd travels the farthest. You might call it ritualized vegetable sacrifice -- in total, some 3,000 to 5,000 pumpkins are "chunked" to their death -- but let's just call it good, messy fun.
Punkin Chunkers are categorized by age (10 and under, 11 to 17 and adult) and hail from towns as distant as Albuquerque and London. Their DIY machines run the gamut from friendly to formidable and are divided into classes based on the type of launch mechanism: Air cannons, for example, have a projectile design, and can cost as much as $200,000 to make. (No surprise -- they often shoot the farthest.) Catapults, on the other hand, resemble medieval weapons. You can make these for next to nothing using scrap wood. Other categories include the odd "human-powered" entry, where machines rely on human energy -- such as someone riding a bike -- for thrust. Whatever the machine, teams keep their eyes on the prize: beating the world record of 4,434.28 feet (set in 2003).
Machines can launch once each day, and every fire is critical. Pumpkins occasionally break up during the launch or in-flight. Or they hook or slice too far off the field. Many teams actually grow their own pumpkins to have more control. "The white lumina is thicker shelled, more compact and the seed area in the center is smaller," says Frank Shade, president of the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association. "They're tougher!" Whatever the varietal, the pumpkin's distance is measured by laser triangulation, a process professional surveyors use.
Stringent safety rules govern the area on and off the field. Teams wear hard hats in "the pit," inspectors check launchers for potential hazards and alert teams as to when to fire, and onlookers must watch from 100 or so feet behind the firing line. Sometimes the fun is seeing whether the machines actually fire.
The thrill of the chunk costs $7 daily, plus there's a country fair's worth of other diversions: live music from the Charlie Daniels Band (appearing Friday at 7:30 p.m.; $25) and other musicians, a fireworks display (Saturday at dusk), as well as crafts and food. From painted gourds to handmade glassware, funnel cakes to sausage sandwiches, you'll likely find something on-site to spend your dough on -- unless, of course, you're saving up to build your own machine for next year's competition.
-- Jenny Mayo
Punkin Chunkin, Intersection of routes 305 (Hollyville Road) and 306 (Harmony Cemetery Road), Millsboro, Del., 302-684-8196, www.punkinchunkin.com. Nov. 4-6 at 8 a.m. Cost: $7, ages 10 and younger free, parking $2.
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