Dear Linus: I know where The Great Pumpkin lives. And you can find him here every Autumn. The thing is, though, you have to know the secret.
All year round, Sauvie Island is many things to many people. But in Autumn, Sauvie is pumpkin paradise. If you’re a Portland city dweller — or even a suburbanite in the metro counties — who wants something more out of your Autumn-Harvest-Halloween-Thanksgiving pumpkin experience than merely tossing one in your grocery cart along with the milk and bread, then you have likely, at one time or another, contracted Sauvie Island Great Pumpkin Fever.
Thanks to zoning regulations that preserve the island as an agricultural phenomenon mostly inside the city of Portland, Sauvie is home to numerous family-run farms that feature all manner of crops. The soil here is luxurious, having once flowed down the river as sediment and flooded the island in the days before dikes were built for protection. Some of the best organic produce in the region is grown here and shared with many an off-islander who knows this soil is magic. But after all the lettuce is gone and the last Gravensteins are picked from overflowing apple orchards, there is a brief moment of silence.
And then the fever hits. The Great Pumpkin fever.
Roughly the size of Manhattan (40 square miles), Sauvie Island floats a mere 1200 or so inhabitants. The residents come and go with relative ease over a two-lane bridge that more often than not boasts only a couple of cars crossing at the same time. On summer weekends, the population swells, ebbing and flowing with the thermometer’s rise and fall. Sauvie’s beaches are a welcome respite from the city heat.
But Cucurbita pepo febris, as Pumpkin Fever is locally known, is a different thing altogether. It comes at a time when days are shorter and available light is in limited supply. The annual rainy season has begun and you never know when you’ll be able to enjoy a crisp, dry, cool Fall weekend day. So, when that day comes, thousands of people who know they’ll soon be stuck at home, waiting out the rain until ski season, wake up, gather the kids, and descend on the island with all the enthusiasm such a rarified Fall day engenders.
Oh, the farmers are ready for them. Thousands (millions?) of pumpkins lie in wait for the visitors. You can see the fields shining in the sun as you drive over the bridge. Signs everywhere direct drivers to “Pumpkins This Way” and “Corn Maze That Way” and “Haunted Maze the Other Way” and “Pumpkins 49 cents a Pound” and “Hayrides Next Left” and… you get the picture. The farmers know their fevered patients well. If you can lure enough folks to your fields to pick your pumpkins, maybe every last one of them will be bought. So you invent new ways to get them to come to your farm.
And they do, in droves. About a million people visit Sauvie Island annually and, no doubt, pumpkin fever is responsible for a big slice of that pie. This makes the farmers happy and helps them pay their bills — and the visitors are happy, too — but some residents get grumpy about the traffic. At the end of a recent pumpkin-gathering day, cars were backed up for miles, challenging the little two-lane bridge’s ability to move them. If you’re a resident, unless it’s life or death, you don’t ever, ever decide to leave the island for anything during that time. Not unless you want to pretend you’re actually in Manhattan and traversing that forty square miles at one mile an hour, just like a real Manhattanite. Bear in mind that, unlike Manhattan, Sauvie Island has one main road that circles its perimeter. There is a small handful of secondary cross roads (like, three) so, if there’s traffic here, you’re in it. An interesting anomaly just this side of the bridge is a small, attractive parking area where a regular city bus drops off and gathers its passengers. Not many folks are seen carrying little pumpkins on the bus, so county planners are starting to look at running shuttles to and from remote parking areas off the island during high-influx pumpkin days.
By the time the Great Pumpkin Fever has broken (usually by Halloween), farms once overflowing with orange orbs everywhere now offer only one solitary pumpkin, sitting alone in a field. Not many people know it, but I’m sure that one’s the Great Pumpkin. Last of his kind, savoring the end of his season. Then, suddenly, you’ll wake up one day and he’ll be gone, mysterious fellow that he is.
So, Linus, I am completely, one-hundred percent positive that the Great Pumpkin lives here. Otherwise, all those people would look somewhere else, right? If you’re going to find him, though, here’s the secret: Come before everyone realizes it’s Autumn. Come at the end of the summer when all the bathers are gone and the rain hasn’t started. Ride your bicycle along our humble country roads and scout the fields. Somewhere out there, among all the pumpkins giving their last gasp of energy to be the biggest, best pumpkin, lies the Great Pumpkin.
But you have to be quiet to hear him. And that just won’t happen if you get the fever.