Sat., June 19, 2021
by Anton Zuiker Saturday, June 19, 2021

I am happy to report that I was able to pick sour cherries again this year. 

My usual cherry companions are my friends Rose Hoban and Steve Tell. Rose was traveling, and my family opted out of this unique experience, so  Steve and I drove to the Levering Orchard in Galax, Virginia. We arrived at the gate at 8 a.m., but there were already 10 cars waiting in front of us. The word was out: Frank Levering had made clear in his daily answering message that this was a bad year for the orchards after a double freeze this spring. "Come early, because we'll be done in a couple of hours." 

While we waited for the gate to open at 8:30, I chatted with the man who had pulled up behind us. He'd driven up from Cary (20 minutes farther east of where Steve and I had started), and he told me his father used to deliver milk in my area of Chapel Hill. I'm sure he would have come up the gravel driveway to deliver milk to the McCallum family in this brick house.

Once into the orchard, Steve and I found our trees and started picking. The trees had cherries, they were ripe and plump but dispersed, so the picking was slow, and the competition fierce -- 20 or 30 other cars pulled into the orchard after us, some older individuals, some young families (my first time picking was with my three children). A couple of hours later, all the trees were bare, and I had a bucket three-fourths filled (about 6.5 pounds of cherries). In past, better years, I could fill a bucket in an hour. 

At home a few days later, Anna and I pitted the cherries and I prepared three quarts of cherry pie filling, and one pint of sugary cocktail cherries for my old fashioned drinks in the year to come. The cherry pits are flavoring a jar of white wine vinegar and will make salad dressings that much more interesting.

Climbing the Ladder

Steve and I were not in a hurry to end the experience, and we were reluctant to leave as long as we could see any cherries high up in the leaves. We found a tree up the slope where an orchard worker was willing to move the ladder every 15 minutes. I was up high reaching for a last cherry or two when Frank pulled up in his pickup and stopped to chat. I thanked him for investing in new open top ladders, which felt much sturdier than the aged and weathered ladders we've climbed in the last few years. 

"I drove to the Baldwin Apple Ladders Company in Brooks, Maine for those -- 2200 miles!" said Frank.

Climbing those ladders is one of the best parts of my annual pilgrimage to Levering Orchard. I love to pause at the top, flip myself around so I'm sitting on a rung, and look down into the valley and toward North Carolina.

Frank invited us back in August, when his outdoor Orchard Theatre will feature his play, Tales of a Waterless Sea. I told him that sounds fun. And I told him I was already praying and hoping for a bumper crop of cherries next year.