The bright signs appeared the third week in April, proclaiming "strawberries" in shiny red letters, a matching big arrow pointing up the road, our road.
In the old days—or when our kids were small—strawberry-picking trips offered epic odysseys. Packing coolers of water, floppy hats, extra clothes, favorite plastic buckets, sunscreen, snacks and picnic blankets, we prepared the van as if we were going on an overnight voyage. After all, the nearest pick-your-own strawberry farm was an hour away.
But now we had our own sweet fruit mecca, and it was almost within walking distance. We've driven by that sprawling corner field up our road nearly every day for three decades. We used to go on walks and look at the huge rolled hay bales and mooing cows. But strawberries? It was as if the sign had said Disney World or Candyland or Free Sweet Tea.
This summer, nearly an acre of the red berries ripened on the vines of the full-sun hillside on the fifth-generation Orange County farm. Fresh (real fresh) strawberry season lasts about six weeks, so whenever we were down to a pint, one of us would mosey down the road with a bucket and a few dollars for another gallon. Back home, entire categories of strawberry desserts were reinvented.
A plywood sign usually marked "Open" welcomed pickers and eaters like us each morning and each afternoon. Many times, we'd stop off after work, driving down the winding gravel driveway to a parking lot crowded with like-minded pilgrims. More recently, though, if you arrived too late in the day, you got the flip side of the sign, bearing those most dreaded words for strawberry lovers—"Picked Out." "Come Again" followed with typical Southern hospitality.
Return we did. On two recent afternoons, I stopped by after work, only to be greeted by disappointment. But after an afternoon rain, I got lucky and brought home a gallon for the freezer. Finally, two weeks ago, an e-mail alerted the neighborhood that this would likely be the last week of real-fresh, real-local pickings.
Or for us, at least: Our youngest daughter arrived home a few weeks ago after working at an upstate New York organic farm. She'd weeded raspberry and strawberry beds, thinned apple trees, and pollinated tomato plants with an electric toothbrush. Just before she left, one of her favorite jobs had been to drive to nearby villages and post pick-your-own strawberry signs. Their season was about five weeks behind our own, we figured. When she had arrived in New York, the year's frosts hadn't ended. When she left, the plants were in full bloom, the fruits ripening.
So, on these early summer days, I like to think of some soon-to-be-lucky guy, 650 miles north of us, driving home from work on one of those roller-coaster New England roads. He's daydreaming of strawberry dessert when he rounds the curve and, all of a sudden, sees a bright sign with red letters. A matching red arrow points up his road, at least for a time.