"they had their faces twisted toward their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.
…and since he wanted so to see ahead,
he looks behind and walks a backward path.
Yesterday, I found the fifth circle of hell when my family and some friends decided to take a nice Fall drive and go apple picking at Alstede Farm in Chester, NJ. Admittedly, it was all my idea since I read that Alstede Farm has lots of things for the kids to do--inflatables, petting zoo, pony rides, tractor rides, and so much more! (Here's the lesson I've learned--contained within those four little words "and so much more" is a major migraine.)
We knew that we had arrived at Alstede Farms even before we saw the signs. Our clue was the single line of traffic that did not move for over a mile. When we finally gained entrance, our caravan was directed by men in vests to wade through deep ditches of farmland mud to find our splendor in the grass parking spot. I pitied the misdirected Prius's and Civics whose silver and blue carcasses were buried lopsided and left abandoned in the La Brea tar pit of the plowed field, but we backed our minivans away from them careful not to run over somebody's grandmother who refused to wait on the endless line for the port-a-potty and decided to find a friendly cornstalk.
As we stepped onto the muddy field and did a headcount of the kids we suddenly realized just how many people had the same idea that we had. We arrived at 3:30pm thinking we would avoid the midday rush. Boy, were we wrong. Picture Disney World in July except without the smiles and without the friendly cast members directing you and trying to make your experience more palatable.
I suppose in an effort to create some semblance of order, Alstede Farms practices human "herding." Hell, if it works on the cattle, it should be a breeze on humans. No matter where I turned there was no open space, only swarms of people looking as confused as I was being indiscriminately herded into roped aisles. Moving with the masses, it took me 20 minutes to realize that I was on a line for caramel apples and not on the line for apple picking. We somehow managed to back our way off that line without getting mobbed by the angry people we had to walk over.
Unintentionally separated from my family and friends, I stood on a haystack and looked around seeing nothing but bodies of unfamiliar people. I suddenly turned into Billy Mumy in the "Twilight Zone" episode where he wished everyone into the cornfields. Watching all these parents trying to keep an eye on their children while suffering through the explosive tantrums as they waited on one disorganized long line after another I wanted to find the owner of Alstede Farms and tell him, "You're a bad man. A very bad man. And I'm wishing you into the cornfields!"
Luckily for cell phones, I was reunited with my family and friends and after stumbling around for the right line, we found the line to purchase Apple Picking tickets. Of course, as soon as we reached the front of the line we were told that the apple orchards were closed because there were no more apples left to pick, but the pumpkin patch was still open and we could purchase as many apples we liked at the country store which is open until 7. Meanwhile, the kids were aching to go on the inflatable rides and lucky for us, the line for inflatable tickets was the same as the line for pumpkin patch tickets.
Here comes my beef--I'm all for having entertainment for the kids, and in years past we've been to other farms that have offered inflatables, but they didn't extort you in the process. Alstede Farms offered a number of different ride packages for three rides. I thought, momentarily, that I was at the state fair. Just give me a ticket for the moonbounce and get me into the pumpkin patch, that's all I wanted, but I was encouraged to consider all the packages some with the pumpkin picking included and others with just the rides. I'd rather they said "$5 unlimited rides" and make it easy and have the lines move than have all the parents (including me) scratching our heads while we were being talked into different packages to purchase. Just opting for the moonbounce and separate pumpkin picking tickets I spent $3 so my son could jump in a moonbounce for exactly two minutes. If I had paid a dollar I wouldn't have cared, but $3 for two minutes? I cared. Talk about a rip off!
It was now 4:30--time to be herded into another line to wait for the tractor ride to the pumpkin patch. (Refer to first picture.) Parked in the fields was a Sabrett Hot Dog cart. Needless to say we paid $3.50 for a hot dog and $3.25 for drinks just to hear the kids not complain about the long line. It was the best $27 we ever spent for a moment of silence.
Finally, after an eternity of waiting in a herd, we were corralled onto the tractor by men who, I believe, were taking bets as to who could shove the most bodies onto the bales of hay. Not only were we packed in, but the men kept saying, "Slide in, slide in. We can fit more people on!" On the second shout of "Slide in!" a piece of hay got shoved so far up my ass that the only way it's coming out is in my autopsy.
The pumpkin patch offered a welcome relief. It was big enough that we could lose ourselves from eachother and find some seclusion in a piece of pumpkin-ed earth. After spending an hour with the kids choosing six of the heaviest most perfect pumpkins we had the pleasure of waiting on yet another line to take the tractor back to insanity. It was 6:00 and the sun was beginning to shrink in direct proportion to my patience. By this time all rules of society had disintegrated and every parent was in complete "Animal Farm" mode. As soon as the tractor pulled to a stop, the line dissipated into mobs of people using their pumpkins and their children as weapons with which to beat their neighbors out of the way so they could get onto the tractor. There was no more compliance to the shouts of "Slide in!" Only sharp retorts of, "Leave now! Leave now! Let them eat pumpkins! Leave now!" It was mankind at its worst and I was a part of it. It was reminiscent of the last plane out of Vietnam, and I was determined to hold onto the propellors, or in this case John Deere Wheels, to escape with my family.
Once we emerged from the fields and arrived back into civilization, we were once again herded onto an endless line where we stood waiting for our pumpkins to be weighed so we could pay. The sun had officially set. Every child was tired and cranky and not afraid to show it. When it was finally my turn to pay I discovered that my "Tractor ride" tickets must have fallen out of my pocket on the ride to or from the fields and they refused to give me the discount I was promised on the pumpkins. At that point my head fell off and the mob behind me started to vehemently react to the salesperson's insistence that I needed my tickets. Afraid of the mob, I was begrudgingly given my discount. Begrudgingly. Did I say begrudgingly? Begrudgingly.
Alstede Farms is not in the business of making a day at the farm a pleasurable family experience. Memorable, yes. Pleasurable? No. Based on my experience, and that of my fellow travellers and the strangers I stood in all those lines with, my opinion is that they're in the business of squeezing as much money out of you as they possibly can in the most unfriendly way possible. They should take some advice from the other farms who offer similar diversions for the kids, but never lose sight that family's are there to pick apples and/or pumpkins--like Demarest Farms, Abma's Farm, and Orchards of Conklin. I think Hell is better organized than Alstede Farms in Fall.