An Autumn Ritual

IMG_0260The sun was shining on the Mississippi as we headed upriver along the bluffs above Alton, Illinois. The oppressive St. Louis summer was winding down and the first notes of fall were in the air. A touch of cool through the open car windows hinted at Halloween, leaf piles and hot cider without coming right out and stating it. It was apple picking time.

An hour north of St. Louis in the highlands above the little river town of Grafton, Illinois, is Eckert’s orchard. Replete with red barn and a tractor that pulls you out into the grove, Eckert’s is home of peaches, blackberries and what seems like several thousand varieties of apples. It has been there since the 1960s and is a St. Louis area tradition independently interwoven into the histories of thousands of families. I myself always had fond memories of my dad taking me out there as a little kid, lifting me up to pick apples off the trees in the cool autumn air, his classic wool “dad” shirt rough to the touch.

Now I had a daughter of my own and this was her first trip apple picking. At fifteen months, she could walk and even run, but wasn’t able to always guarantee a vertical disposition if she got too excited. She had just a few words in her vocabulary, mostly consisting of versions of “no” and animal sounds. She was intensely interested in the moon and electric ceiling lights and pointed them out to me every time she saw one, speaking interestedly in some language I couldn’t quite understand.

I idly wondered how she would do apple picking so young. Would she get it? It basically consists of wandering through an orchard with a bag and picking way more apples from the trees than you could ever eat, then sitting down and having apple cider or a caramel apple back at the barn. Fifteen months might be a wee bit young, but you gotta start ‘em out early, right?

As we drove up the River Road towards Grafton, I was inwardly thankful I wasn’t a visitor or a tourist, but that this was my life. It was one of those times you were happy to be a Midwesterner. You can’t beat apple picking—you just can’t. There is something about it that is so real, so authentic. It’s the most classic of experiences, like mom’s cooking or going sledding as a little kid. It’s the kind of thing movies and novels strive to capture, yet there it is in three dimensions, quintessential Americana happening all around you. It’s real. And it’s beautiful.

Grafton is just a little town between the bluffs and the river—some restaurants, quaint shops, ice cream parlors and, above all things awesome to a little boy, a tugboat-looking car ferry that you drove onto and got to get out and walk around on, looking over the sides at the brown water as it chugged across the river. It’s the type of town that, while I’m sure it actually exists in the same plane of existence as the one I live in, seems like something out of the movie Big Fish—more of a legend than a town. It occupied that part of mind normally reserved for sunny days, walks in the deep woods and dangling toes off a dock.

IMG_0237Passing through Grafton, we broke away from the river and headed into the hills above, winding around shady curves as the sun dappled two-lane road climbed through valleys and hollows, eventually giving way to corn fields and farms. And then we were there. Always smaller in real life than in my mind, this time it was different. I was there with my kid. I was the dad now. And oddly enough, that restored some of the saturated Technicolor majesty to the experience, as though some bit of the magic of my childhood was transmuted into the present.

As we got our apple picking bags, I was happy to discover you still had to ride the tractor out to the trees, though now I wondered if it wouldn’t be faster just to walk. Typical grown up. Climbing onto the wagon in the back, I lifted my daughter to a seat directly behind the tractor. She stood all of about two feet tall and held onto the railing, smiling at the driver and opening and closing her hand in that cute little kid wave while repeatedly telling him “hi,” one of the few words in her vocabulary.

After a bumpy ride, the sweet smell of apples all around us, we climbed off the tractor and walked across a pumpkin patch to the trees that had the apples my wife wanted. My daughter happily pointed out the pumpkins, identifying them for me with words I couldn’t understand.

And there I stood in that sunny orchard, probably almost three decades after I first went as a boy, an apple bag on one arm, my daughter in the other. As I picked an apple and showed her how to put it in the bag, it wasn’t lost on me that I once was in the exact same position in my father’s arms. She took a bite of the apple, realization dawning that we were actually picking these off trees and you could eat them.

Tentatively she reached up through the branches and leaves. There I stood, holding my daughter up in the autumn air so she could reach them. She wrapped her little hands around a giant apple and pulled back as hard as she could.

The apple popped off the tree. She put it in the bag.

I realized right then why we always bought way more apples than we needed.