At the intersection of two country roads, I coasted to a stop. I hadn’t brought a map with me because I wanted to become lost for a few hours. I wanted to escape the pressure of classes and exams, and enjoy the sensory banquet of a Michigan autumn: the gaudy beauty of the trees, the pungent smell of burning leaves, the shrill whistle of mid-October winds.
I was somewhere north of Benton Harbor, and east of South Haven... I thought. But it didn’t matter, not when autumn fields and hay bales ringed picturesque farmhouses, and red and gold leaves carpeted the ground. So I turned north, drove a while and turned east, then north again, then (possibly) west.
And then I saw the hand-painted sign, pointing to a long driveway between rows of small apple trees:
FRESH, COLD APPLE CIDER!
I followed the drive to a farmhouse dwarfed by a large red barn, its doors open, with another car parked in front of it.
As I got out of the car and pulled on a corduroy jacket, a man came out of the barn. He had a weathered, ageless face, and wore a flannel shirt and overalls.
“Afternoon,” he said pleasantly. “Here to buy some cider?”
“Great. Well, come in, then. I was just showing some folks how we make it.”
I followed him inside the barn, which was part equipment storage shed, part cider-making operation. A middle-aged couple stood by an unusual contraption that looked like a stack of metal shelves pressed tightly together.
The farmer—who never introduced himself—continued the lecture he had already begun. And though I had gotten away from campus to escape lectures, I didn’t mind this one.
He showed us how apples traveled up a steep conveyer belt, then dropped into a grater, which ground them into pulp. A tube sucked the pulp into a heavy metal frame lined with burlap. When a stack of frames had been filled, a steel plate mashed them together. The pressure compressed the apple pulp, forcing the liquid through the burlap layers and into a cooling tank.
“One more thing I’ve got to tell you,” said the farmer. “Lots of folks save the best apples to sell. The ones that don’t look so good—the bruised ones, the ugly ones, sometimes even the rotten ones—those go into the cider. But I don’t do that. I use the best apples for my cider.”
It sounded like a typical sales pitch. But he produced plastic cups and an ice-cold jug, and poured out a thick amber liquid for each of us. And though I had never tasted the ambrosia of classical myth, I thought that this seductively sweet, fruity liquid might have inspired Homer himself.
“Just like drinking apples,” said the other woman appreciatively, and she and her husband bought several jugs.
I bought two.
“Do you only sell this to people who stop by?” I asked.
“Nope. I sell most of it to a distributor... he comes by a few times a week and takes it over to Chicago. But folks around here like to buy it by the quart, and I don’t mind.”
Somehow, I found my way back to campus. I tried to remember the location of the farm, and I thought—optimistically—I could find it again. I would certainly try, if the cider I’d bought tasted like the sample.
It did. I hoarded it, savoring each glass. But fresh, unpasteurized apple cider is mortal, and in three days it began to taste like something not acceptable at a conservative Christian university.
And so my quest began.
I asked professors and others who lived in town if they’d ever heard of the farm—I remembered the name from the jugs. But no one recognized it; it wasn’t in the phone book; and internet search engines had yet to be invented. I tried several times to duplicate my journey. Always, I failed.
I left Michigan many years ago, and sometimes I imagine what it would be like to try again: meander off the main highway onto country roads, look for the hand-lettered sign. Maybe the old farmer or his heirs still press cider in the big red barn and sell it by the quart.
But I suppose it’s just as well if I never find that particular road again. Perhaps we mortals can savor only small sips of perfection—and nothing remains so eternally sweet as a memory.
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