"Just a few more miles, I'm sure we'll see a pumpkin sign. There will have to be a pumpkin sign. Look, children," I said, with forced enthusiasm, "there are the Blue Ridge Mountains!"
There was no response, not surprisingly. We were driving back from a long weekend, most of which had been spent in close proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now everyone was tired, everyone had been driving too long. And some members of our family were annoyed that we'd already gone 25 minutes out of our way to get to an obscure pumpkin patch in rural Virginia. "We could have bought the pumpkins at the supermarket," my husband grumbled.
He was right. We could have bought the pumpkins at the supermarket. We could also have bought the apples, the gourds, the honey and the Indian corn at the supermarket. But it wouldn't have been the same, shopping at the supermarket, and I'm clearly not the only one who thinks so.
Indeed, in the past 10 years or so, the phenomenon of the annual visit to the great pumpkin patch has grown out of all recognition. Many pumpkin patches don't even call themselves pumpkin patches anymore, preferring "Pumpkin Playland" (if they're aiming for the toddler market) or the more adult "Harvest Festival" (if they sell the fermented version of apple cider). Not content merely to offer the traditional orange gourds strewn about a muddy field, these modern pumpkin patches offer corn mazes, hayrides and pony rides; petting zoos, beekeeping lessons and miniature tractors; pumpkin painting, pumpkin bowling and make-your-own scarecrow contests. At least one whose Web site I perused promised an "Inflatable Little Tykes Haunted House," whatever that can possibly be.
A field trip to the pumpkin patch is now de rigueur in some preschools, which is perhaps understandable: There aren't that many other places that a group of 4-year-olds can be safely taken. One of the clear advantages of a pumpkin patch, as opposed to, say, the Air and Space Museum, is that your voice echoes quite nicely across the vine-strewn fields, and all 23 children can hear when you shout.
Much harder to explain is why adults who are not preschool teachers insist on taking their own children to pumpkin patches. Last fall, the National Review columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon, still recovering from the sight of indifferent farm workers herding shivering children onto rickety wagons for a "fun" ride in the howling wind, described the typical pumpkin patch as a "cross between a family farm and a camp in the gulag archipelago." Others are more sanguine. "It's our rural-agricultural heritage," shrugged a mother who had just dispatched her daughter to one of those pumpkin patches where they charge an $11 entry fee, take you on hayride through a field full of cartoon characters and then graciously give you the pumpkin for "free."
But maybe it really is something to do with our rural-agricultural heritage: something to do with the historical role of the family farm in American life, something to do with our (admittedly sublimated) desire to participate in the autumn harvest, and, at least in my case, something to do with extensive childhood overexposure to "Little House on the Prairie" novels. I also detect in my pumpkin-patch visiting acquaintances a powerful need to find wholesome weekend activities that don't include organized sporting events.
Aside from all that, there's also something in the pumpkin patch mania that, for lack of a less pretentious phrase, I'd call a search for authenticity. So much of childhood, nowadays, is mediated through screens, and so much of what is on the screens is inanimate. Bambi has given way to Transformers, Bugs Bunny has been replaced by Power Rangers, and cartoon animals have more generally been replaced by cartoon machines. Even if you turn off your television altogether, your children will still run to the "interactive" exhibits at the natural history museum, as opposed to the petrified wood, and they'll still want to play with toys that look like miniature robots. Animals and plants simply figure much less than they used to in the average city child's imagination, and we adults try to compensate as best we can. An annual farm visit, however tacky, is better than nothing.
Or that, at any rate, is my attempt at a post hoc rationale for what proved to be a rather extensive detour. After a good bit of driving we did eventually find the large orange signs and did eventually pick our pumpkins from genuine pumpkin vines. We also bought some apples, petted some goats and smelled the hay. Then we turned around and drove the many extra miles home. And I, at least, imagined that it was all worthwhile.