Get Lost In a Hay Maze at Arata’s Pumpkin Farm, Half Moon Bay, CA

Pumpkin Minotaur, Photo by John Barrows

I thought the window of opportunity to get lost in the gigantic hay maze at Arata’s Pumpkin Farm in Half Moon Bay was closed. I’d been looking through pictures taken late September a few years back. The pictures captured green corn fields, dingy yellow stacked hay bales with orange pumpkins dotting the dusty earth. It was already mid-October. I realized it might be too late in the month to spend an enjoyable afternoon at the farm.

Farm Equipment, Photo by John Barrows

Last year, my husband and I went to Arata’s the weekend before Halloween. Which was a big mistake. All of the parking spaces around the perimeter of the farm were taken when we got there. Farm staff directed us to drive up to the top of a hill. Pumpkin hugging pedestrians swarmed around our car on their way back up the hill. After much searching, we arrived at a muddy parking spot on the hill’s plateau. Then we became a part of the stream of people bounding downhill to the festivities.

Pick a Pumpkin, Photo by John Barrows

Once inside the farm I realized I wasn’t going to enjoy myself. People were standing in half-hour long lines to get tickets to the amusements and to buy pumpkins. The hay maze itself was full of frolicking children and parents. Yes, that’s what the maze was created for but I was used to a relaxed saunter through the maze not a frenzied push. So we wound up walking around the farm to stretch our legs, then hiked back up to the car without a 30lb gourd and slowly drove through the crowd back out to HWY 1.

So when I started thinking about the pumpkin farm this year it was already coming up on two weeks before Halloween. But my mind started plotting a way to go to the farm and enjoy it even though it seemed like the odds of having a great time were slim. I kept my work schedule light for Friday and asked my husband to take Friday off too. We made our escape mid-day and headed to the coast.

Start of the Maze, Photo by John Barrows

In years past we’d stuff a backpack full of sandwiches and drinks to eat inside the maze. I’d bring a beach towel to spread out on the moist ground in the nook of a dead end. Maze-goers gasp in surprise when they stumble upon us eating our deli sandwiches. We shake our heads at them and say in unison “dead end.” But this year we stopped at a seafood restaurant on the way to keep things simple.

South HWY 1 greeted us with views of crashing waves, clear blue sky over the ocean and brownish green rolling hillsides. Turning into the farm we had our choice of front row rock star parking spaces. I stepped out of the car to notice an autumn chill that hung on the air even though the sun warmed my skin.

We weren’t the only ones at the farm on a Friday. A school bus load of kids and plenty of families were around picking out pumpkins and participating in the festivities. But there was no problem getting our maze tickets and we were quickly on our way to getting utterly lost.

Picking a Path, Photo by John Barrows

The epic play structure was vast enough, twisty enough, tall enough (four bales of stacked hay) to obscure the view of average height participants. We had the choice of portals to take to get into the heart of the maze. After a few wrong guesses we found the right path.

After several years of stalking through the Arata Farm maze I’ve noted some tricks that can help you make it through in better time – if that’s what you’re going for. If you’ve hit a place in the maze where there are several choices to make, wait and see if people come out frustrated from one of those paths. Then don’t go that way. Notice if people leave trash inside the maze, you can use this as a marker and know you’ve already tried the route with the soda can. Also the maze builders like to put in gates made of hay. Go through these gates – they were put there for a reason.

John Found One, Photo by Eva Barrows

Once we made it out of the maze we scrutinized pumpkin size and shapes. My husband picked out a tall medium 20 pounder. I was surprised to find a bin full of orange pumpkins with what appears to be legions of bulbous green and orange warts. I decided to go for the diseased looking pumpkin because I won’t need to decorate it at all. It was born scary.

Scary Pumpkin, Photo by Eva Barrows

I don’t recommend going to Arata’s this coming weekend. It will be a mad house. Mark your calendar for the end of September or first two weeks of October next year to discover the maze. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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A Curious Saltbox on California’s Coast

Johnston House, Photo by John Barrows

Driving over the gravel road that swoops around the front of the historic ranch house we bounce in our seats. Climbing slightly in elevation acres of empty farmland stretch out before us on the way out to the Pacific Ocean. A variety of hearty coastal grasses blanket the field in thick tufts and thin seed laden stalks that brush against the breeze. Green rolling hills cradle the estate to the East with larger forested hills beyond.

The view of the ocean often times obscured by wispy fog or diffused by sea mist was clear for our visit. The ocean carved inland up the coast to the crescent shaped Half Moon Bay.

The James Johnston House built in 1853 doesn’t have a stitch of architectural ornamentation but manages to be the most striking historic home on the Half Moon Bay coast. From head-on, the home is two stories, painted simply in white with ample glass pained windows trimmed by forest green shutters as the home’s sole decoration.

Johnston House – Photo by John Barrows

Approaching the house from the side reveals something unusual: the roofline slopes down to one story in the back. Ah yes, it’s the two stories becoming one at the back that catches Californians cruising past the site off guard. I liken this architectural maneuver to a hi-low dress hemline but on a building. This style of home is called “saltbox” and was a popular colonial design originating around the 1650s on the East Coast.

James Johnston, a gold rush entrepreneur, built his saltbox home while established Californio families lived in Spanish adobe and his American peers were putting up in vogue Victorians. Johnston’s sentimental choice of architecture was based on the home he grew up in, in Ohio.

Whizzing by on the highway before I knew much about the James Johnston House, I thought that it could be a Civil War movie set. I’d never seen another structure like it. An out-of-fashion Yankee Colonial in gold rush era California connected the frontier to the deep rooted nation established back East.

The home became abandoned over time and was unprotected from the stormy coast and grazing farm animals. A picture of the home from 1965 shows the back one story level had been hacked off, the exterior paint stripped and window frames void of glass. The coastal community and outside preservationists recognized the uniqueness of the structure and worked over many years (mid-1960s to present) to bring the Johnston House back to life.

Side View Photo by John Barrows

Walking up to the house, visitors pass a rose garden with white picket fence. A pair of partially salvaged fence posts atop weathered wood pillars mark the walkway.

Entering the home through the back door, the brown shingled roof hovers inches away from our heads. The one story section of the home houses a small gift shop and museum office. Victorian costumed docents greet us and start the tour at the front of the house. Our tour guide wears sneakers with his black pants and burgundy vest, eager to show us around.

Bedroom Photo by John Barrows

Original Johnston family furnishings are on display throughout the house along with period correct decorations. A sample of the original wallpaper was found preserved inside a Catholic alter within the home. The paper, mostly white featuring strokes of silver, was recreated and placed on the walls. The white of the paper keeps the interior of the home bright and cheerful on cloudy days.

One bedroom was left unpainted so that visitors can see the fine locally sourced redwood paneling that was used as building material. A patch of wall beam is uncovered by paneling to display the mortice-and-tenon construction work used to create the home.

The living space that was created by the dramatic roof slant is triangular in shape and runs the whole length of the home. I stood comfortably at the start of the room but ducking is required to occupy the lower region. The space was used to house ranch workers and was also available to coastal travelers needing shelter for the night.

Kitchen Photo by John Barrows

The docents comment that they find new items in the house during the monthly tours. A “new” child’s rocking horse in the kids room or a new painting on the wall of the living room. Continued restoration projects and gardening help bring the house back to life inside and out. The coastal architectural curiosity reminds passersby of another time and another place.

The home is open to tours January through September on third Saturdays between 11am and 3pm.

http://www.johnstonhouse.org/

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