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Finding a good spot at Apple Hill

Life in Our Mountain Town, Katie Shaffer

Last weekend my family and I took a trip to Apple Hill, that quaint section of hilly apple orchards located above Placerville off Highway 50. Even as I suggested it, I questioned whether that was how I really wanted to spend our day together.

Our trips to Apple Hill seem to be spread apart by several years. We tend to only recall the fond memories, and we forget the agonizing ones such as how long it takes to get there.

Usually we take the scenic route along the West Shore of Lake Tahoe, to enjoy the changing aspens and willows. On a Sunday, this route is clogged with slow-moving cars. Once we reach South Lake Tahoe, everyone has a need: food, gas, a bathroom. The next thing we know, we’ve spent an hour in a town that has little appeal to me.

We did find a burger shack called Izzy’s. Since we knew of Izzy’s reputation for greasy burgers dripping in grilled onions from their sister “burger spa” in Tahoe City, we pulled in, waited in line, telling ourselves we were in no hurry.

To make up for lost time, my husband then proceeded to drive the last hour down Highway 50, swerving expertly on curvy mountain roads. Feeling carsick by the time we arrived at our first apple farm, I wished we had decided to spend our family day at home planting bulbs.

As your kids get older, however, I’ve found that when they want to do something as a family, my husband and I leap at the opportunity.

We each had ideas of where we should stop. Our youngest pressed to pick raspberries, while my husband and I agreed with silent eye contact and head gestures that we might not have time for that stop. All I could remember about raspberry picking was that it took a while and our daughter filled her stomach and then presented a small basket for which we paid.

As we turned off Highway 50 at the Camino exit and started following the Apple Hill signs, we all spotted the very hillside where we had picked raspberries. It looked familiar but it did not appear to be open. My husband, still driving at lightning speed whipped past and told our daughter that maybe we would come back.

As we pulled up to each apple farm, one of us would remember something wonderful, and another would groan. “Not the museum with the old rusty farm equipment!” My husband loves this place. I did not want to spend time looking at mannequins dressed up as the Larsen family ancestors.

Another thing we had forgotten was that Apple Hill is essentially a tourist trap. Thousands of vehicles travel from orchard to orchard along narrow roads.

The apple growers have thought of everything. One place we stopped had bales of hay set up like a maze, and if you are shorter than four feet tall, this could entertain you for hours.

I liked to seek out the authentic stuff – the apple baskets and the corn stalks to decorate the front door.

I wasn’t interested in the flea market booths and I did not want to pick out a pumpkin that was displayed on a concrete slab. So we walked away from some perfect pumpkins at one place, and pulled in where a sign advertised that we could pick our own. Most of these pumpkins were already cut off the vine and were left without a stem, face down, rotting in a field. We paid for a few Charlie Brown-type pumpkins and continued on.

With my carsickness ebbing, and our back seat filling up with cider and pumpkins and apples that you can’t get in a store – Mutsu and Winesap and Empire – we started thinking about the drive home. At this point, our younger daughter was still pressing to pick raspberries.

Having tried every trick we knew to talk her out of it, we decided to make it our last stop. We pulled up the gravel driveway and spotted the raspberry shrubs, but there was no tent or cash register set up. Instead, there was a new fence. We sat in our idling truck, explaining to our 12-year-old why you can’t just pick raspberries in someone’s yard when they’re obviously not open to the public anymore. The next thing I knew, I was escorting my daughter around the fence. I handed her an empty Styrofoam cup and told her to make it quick. I could see through an apple orchard, a mere two rows away, the edge of a yard and the corner of a porch and I could hear a dog who started to bark. Thinking about how I would explain what we were doing in their raspberry patch, I quickly rationalized that if they found me writing a note, maybe they would forgive us.

When my note was written, I looked out at my daughter bent over the raspberries. The dog was no longer barking. I could hear the sprinklers running and my daughter humming as she filled her cup. Suddenly I was struck by the scene before me which was far removed from the mayhem of the last tourist trap. The hill sloped downward and another hillside rose beyond it; the sun was setting. I wedged my note with a five dollar bill between some wire and the fence post and we hurried back to my husband and older daughter, who wanted nothing to do with our questionable endeavor. It was the best place we had stopped all day.

Katie Shaffer is a Truckee resident. Life in Our Mountain Town appears every other week in the Sierra Sun.


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