“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
~F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Fall comes late in California. The warm gentle air of summer still lingers, wrapping itself around your shoulders like a favorite woolen sweater. The earth is a dusty powder; the sky, the color of sapphire. But for me, the harbingers of California’s autumn are the apple trees heralding the new season in a blaze of red and golden deliciousness at a place called Gizdich Ranch.
We are winding our way through forest-lined hills toward Watsonville, an agricultural town on the central California coast, just south of Santa Cruz. It has been more than twenty years since Herb and I have traveled this road to Gizdich Ranch. Every September when our daughter and son were growing up, we went apple picking here, a tradition and a place that wove themselves into the fabric of our family, an annual rite of passage marking the transition of summer folding into fall.
Our years of apple picking outings were as precious and fleeting as the season itself, eventually giving way to school activities and soccer games and growing up. But even when the apples for my Thanksgiving pie came from the local market rather than being hand-picked by one of us, I always thought of Gizdich Ranch.
The Road to Gizdich Ranch
It’s the road I remember almost as much as the destination itself, a stretch of California State Route 152 called Hecker Pass that climbs through the Santa Cruz Mountains, connecting Gilroy and Watsonville. One moment we are enveloped in a deep forest; the next we spill out into the light, passing a winery, nurseries and flower fields. We stop at a marker honoring the Hecker Pass namesake – Henry Hecker – a Santa Clara County supervisor who was responsible for the completion of this “Yosemite-to-the-Sky Highway” in 1928.
I am curious if the restaurant at the top of Hecker Pass is still there. I can’t recall its name – we’d never even eaten there – but I’d always thought of it as a landmark before the road begins its descent into Watsonville. Herb pulls our car to the side of the road, and we stare at what is now a ghost of travels past. The M-topped sign for the Mt. Madonna Inn is still there, advertising “dining” and “cocktails,” but it’s missing a few letters. A boarded-up building behind a chainlink fence is there as well…missing a restaurant.
Gizdich at Last!
As we descend into the valley, patches of farmland dot the landscape, and strategically placed signs point the way to Gizdich. We turn down the main ranch road, surprised by how busy it seems for a Thursday afternoon. The you-pick season at Gizdich runs just three weeks in September – Thursdays through Sundays – and this is the final weekend for the year. A sprightly woman who we’re fairly certain is the ranch’s owner, Nita Gizdich, is directing traffic.
“Are you here for picking or pie or both?” she asks. “The pie lot is full, so you should drive down to the picking lot first.”
We pass a familiar-looking barn and park the car near the orchard check-in stand. The attendant explains that four varieties of apples are available for picking. Face coverings are required, and the wheelbarrows and apple buckets I fondly remember have been replaced with sturdy plastic bags – a sign of the Covid times.
Herb and I take a couple of bags and head down the hill to the Pippin section to gather some of the coveted baking apples requested by our family. We walk deeper into the orchard to find branches that are not picked over, evidence that we are indeed here at the end of the season. But even on a busy afternoon, it sometimes feels as if we have the grove to ourselves, and we are able to seek out a quiet spot to pull down our face coverings for a quick selfie.
We tote our stash of apples to the check-out stand and drive back to the pie shop. The Gizdich apple pies of my memory are tall, piled high with apples, perfuming the room with a delicious aroma as they sit cooling on the pie shop window sill. On this day, however, apple pie is not on the menu. We decide on a slice of French apple, but the place is so busy that when we reach the front of the line, that is gone, too. “If you come back in an hour, we will have more,” the friendly baker tells us.
But we can’t stay. We need to move on to San Francisco, where we’ll spend a few days with our infant grandson. Maybe next year he’ll be ready for his own apple picking adventure. Maybe we’ll return once again to Gizdich Ranch. And just maybe we’ll even have a slice of that long-remembered apple pie.