Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival: Capitalism at its finest

Alex Dang/Staff

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“The roads are open, the sky is clear, people are smiling, autumn is HERE!”

— Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival

DATE: SATURDAY, OCT. 19

LOCATION: SOMEWHERE ALONG THE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA COAST

TIME: AROUND 12 P.M.

If Half Moon Bay is anything, it is not sunny. Today, it is draped in clouds that foreshadow rain and cast a sense of gloominess. Its roads are not open. I’m sitting in uncomfortable silence, peering out the window as my Lyft driver mutters curses under his breath. We’re about five miles out from Main Street, which is where the city of Half Moon Bay holds its annual art and pumpkin festival for two days in October. I too am cursing under my breath, but at my serious failure in planning. 

In addition to the 45 minutes on the BART from Downtown Berkeley, the trip includes an unexpected 45 minutes on your choice of rideshare services or two hours on the SamTrans, San Mateo County’s version of AC Transit. I realize that I’m going to miss the Great Pumpkin Parade, Half Moon Bay’s Mardi Gras-style procession, featuring, in addition to your necessary-for-any-small-town-parade high school marching band acolytes and paper-mache floats, the grand attraction of the festival: the winner of the 46th Annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off. The champion is a gargantuan pumpkin that would make Linus van Pelt seem like an idolator. 

Before we become stuck in traffic that moves at about a mile every 10 minutes, I observe signs that line the road advertising white corn, homegrown jam and jelly — “Come see Giant Pumpkins!” I’m only a 40-minute drive away from San Francisco, but somehow “countryside” seems appropriate to describe this place. Past the redwoods and the winding mountain roads, the slew of beach towns that compose Half Moon Bay out-beach even Manhattan Beach.

As we near Main Street, the dosage of orange increases tenfold. We pass by more pumpkin patches, little girls dressed as witches — orange-and-black striped leggings and all — a teepee (with two men standing on a haystack, gazing out à la Lewis and Clark) and a trio of 30-something-year-olds with pumpkin berets. Even the signs for Half Moon Bay’s little league are in orange.

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The festival

Walking in at the aluminum-barriered end of Main Street, I see that there’s some kind of swing or bungee-jumping contraption, with little kids flying through the air, as a teenager nervously watches them. The pedestrian space isn’t that big, considering tents for sellers take up most of the street. More pumpkin berets appear, making them more of a mystery than something to smirk at. 

I’m looking for the prize pumpkin, so I decide that I have no time to lounge around craftsmans’ booths. My search leads me to the front yard of a pale blue house, where some impressive, Safeway-sponsored pumpkins are perched on a wooden platform. A crowd of people are taking pictures of and with them. One woman points out that one of the pumpkins broke its stand. 

Alex Dang/Staff

I end up in conversation with the man behind a table who’s trying to marshall support for a new pool in Half Moon Bay and who reveals to me that these pumpkins aren’t even the prizewinners. When he hears that I’m a journalist, he suggests that my angle could be the community involvement aspect of the festival: The whole city contributes to the festival, down to the local football jocks, and the event promotes not only pumpkins, but Half Moon Bay itself.

Right after, I notice that the booths next to him, which are selling caramel apples and your choice of plain or pumpkin mac and cheese for $7, are sponsored by a local Methodist church and the Coastside Children’s Programs. Visiting festivalgoers may view the vendors as nothing more than that, but they’re all members of the community, manning both their booths and their causes.

Families, Safeway and a river of alcohol

I leave the Safeway gimmick charged with the motivation to investigate this new community angle, but also confused as to how to even approach it. I haven’t eaten anything the entire day, so I go to a large courtyard with a music stage occupied by Bostonian-looking guys with golf hats and well-tended beards, as well as a section of tents, one of which advertises the “Best Pumpkin Pie in the World.” Naturally, I am skeptical. 

For $5 a slice, the cinnamon-sprinkled pie, handed to me from a low, identity-concealing slot in the tent, is delicious. And it’s not just my hunger speaking. I weasle my way out of the growing crowd and move to a brick wall, where I enjoy my pie and watch the musical act set up. The  master of ceremonies is trying to brag that his girlfriend just won a free tablet at the Verizon booth. “$300. The tablet’s worth $300.” A woman passing by mockingly responds, “Wooowww.”

Ads are plastered behind the stage: Half Moon Bay Winery, local news station KPIX 5, the Main Street Beautification Committee, the festival organizers and, of course, Safeway, which seems to be the Walmart of Half Moon Bay. There’s a sign behind the rows of white foldable chairs that reads,

 Hungry? 

Here’s the beef 

Thirsty? 

Cold beer Wine and Soda

I see more alcoholic drinks than water. Festivalgoers tightly clutch little pints of beer that have the festival’s logo on them, while others hold mini, plastic shots of mimosas or wine in one hand and hang onto their whining 7-year-olds with the other. For every cup of alcohol, there is a child being dragged along with it. The local vendors of Half Moon Bay seem to have caught on to that as well: a scrawny-looking high schooler holds up a sign that advertises pumpkin smoothies, with the price’s $5 edited by Sharpie into a six.

Farther down the street, I find Safeway’s headquarters, which is drawing large crowds with its shiny red truck and hay couch, both of which are photo hubs. Adults on both sides of the street are dressed in costumes, some less impressive than others: Bowsers, witches, pilgrims and retired men who wear shirts that say: “I love witches” or “I’m with the witch” (with an arrow pointing to a tipsy wife). Orange apparel is ubiquitous.

The scene is more like an amusement park than a fall festival — everyone seems to be tired of waiting.

Crowds of traffic flow slowly in both directions. Bars are packed out to the porch. The scene is more like an amusement park than a fall festival — everyone seems to be tired of waiting. I overhear an attendee say, “I really like festivals, but I don’t like the crowd.” With a purported 300,000 attendees this year, she came to the wrong place.

Then, the rain

About 3 p.m., it starts to drizzle. It was only a matter of time. Having traversed the festival’s Main Street from end to end, and still having no lead on an angle, I walk back to the start of the festival. 

The champion pumpkin is disappointing. The massive, white and less spherical than squashed pumpkin is hidden in a tent behind a snaking line of people who have paid $15 to get a picture with it.

Random musicians and street performers appear, with a magician ending his wielding-knives-on-a-tricycle act with an earnest plea for the huge crowd of onlookers to donate money to support his family. Some people walk away before he can finish.

I finally decide to walk into one of the many artisan booths, avoiding those that say “Fine Art” but sell reprints on canvas and enter into a large tent that has its sides adorned with wood carvings. The tent’s proprietor, the owner of Rising Tide Sculpture, is Richard Vest, a bearded man whose voice resembles The Dude’s from “The Big Lebowski.”

Vest is from Placerville, around the Lake Tahoe area, and has been selling at the festival since 1978, seven years after its founding. He tells me that a lady just purchased one of his first dolphins. He seems to be proud of that.

“The secret for me is I’m always adding new work. And you keep fresh as an artist — you do your dolphins and your whales, but you’re constantly adding new work and making it more sophisticated. So there’s a new group of people all the time that have never seen the work, and they want something different for their home,” Vest says. 

Vest does 11 shows a year, including ones in San Diego, Palm Springs and Morro Bay. For his fellow artisans who he shares a “camaraderie” with, this kind of show circuit is taken seriously.

“Ninety percent of these artists are full-time. They’re not doing this as a hobby on the (weekend). So that makes them professional,” Vest says. “They know how to set up their booth, they know how to sell, they know how to do some good work.”

When asked about the festival, Vest’s praise is unrestrained for its organization, its food and music and the pumpkin-related attractions

“I’ll tell you something else that’s really unique about this show. Several years ago it rained really bad here. Yet these people would not leave. They brought out those umbrellas, and they were in line with those umbrellas and going in everybody’s booth and buying even then. They would not go home because they just spent three and a half hours getting across the highway. But that doesn’t stop the Half Moon Bay festival people, I’ll tell you,” Vest says.

And contrary to the festival site’s advertising, he says the fog is expected. 

***

I pass back by Farmer Mike, advertised by the festival as “the Picasso of Pumpkin Carvers,” also known as Mike Valladao, who is diligently working on his subjects. He works slowly and quietly. The pumpkins themselves are gorgeous: One is carved to look exactly like one of the Seven Dwarfs, while another is, as he intends, “goofy and fun.”

Alex Dang/Staff

I stand on a bale of hay, observing Valladao. Crowds filter in and out of his setup, filming him and “aahing” with every flourish he creates with his Buck knife. 

While Valladao comes from San Jose, he says that he feels “very much a part of the city” because his family has lived in or around Half Moon Bay for over 150 years. Like Vest, he’s been working at the festival for over 30 years. He too has a season — six weeks long — which takes him pumpkin carving across the country, from Texas to the California Academy of Sciences.

I observe that pumpkins are important to this town, and Valladao agrees,noting, “Half Moon Bay is the mother lode of pumpkins. It has been for more than 50 years — pumpkins have been big in this area. When … the beautification committee put together the pumpkin festival, it’s just taking something that was already there, and just doing more with it.”

Valladao reaffirms that the festival’s advertisement of clear skies is, for trending purposes, a myth: “Most of the people that live in Half Moon Bay tend to be fairly milky white because there’s not a lot of sun.” While referring to the drizzling rain, Valladao says, “This is the sunshine, you kind of feel it as it drops on your hand.”

Adding to the increasing evidence, from the softball players selling corn dogs to the City Council members manning wine booths, Valladao confirms the citywide effort behind the festival:

“There’s lots of things that’s been done, on top of the fact that there’s so many different venues and events as far as people are. The food booths, the beer, the mugs, everything that they have here goes to different local causes.” 

As I extend my hand to shake Valladao’s, he stops carving, seeming surprised. “Goodbye now,” he says softly, as I jump off of the haystack. With thousands of people passing by, he knows he may never see many of them again.

Good Samaritans and pumpkin hats

It is about 4 p.m., and as I exit the festival, I notice a tent with hats racked inside and out. And there, sitting inside, is an older couple. The man, who I would later find out to be Michael Loeffler, milliner, has measuring tape around his neck, and both of them wear pumpkin berets on their heads. Patient zero, found.

The pumpkin berets, as ridiculous as they seem, have sold out in a day, according to the hatmaker’s wife, Cathy Loeffler. The couple drives down from Seattle every year and has been selling the hats, priced at $25 each, for 30 years, but never quite at this pace.

They’ve sold hundreds already and the festival still has an hour left today, not to mention the second full day tomorrow.

“We sold them out by … right now,” Cathy says.

At one point, she contradicts Vest’s romantic tale: “One year we had a very big rainstorm on a Sunday. Everybody went home. That was really rare, very unusual.”

Cathy is as puzzled by the flux of pumpkin hat sales as I am, but she is pleased with their popularity.

“Well everybody is saying that they’re seeing them all over the whole fair. And that’s maybe, somehow, this year, that’s translating into sales. I don’t know. But you know, I mean, we’re thrilled.”

Sales continue, even as the rain does.  

***

With my phone on its last 10% and my internet connection less than dependable, I find myself at the AT&T shack, where a worker generously charges my phone and lends me his hotspot. Three Lyft drivers have canceled on me, and I don’t want to leave the area for a nearby coffee shop in fear that one of the drivers will accept and will be unable to locate me. After the shack closes at the festival’s closing hour — 5 p.m. — I wander around an intersection, feeding off another hotspot, as I try to locate my new Uber driver.

Traffic continues to slowly secrete out of four streets, and I am beginning to unravel just as slowly. 

I figure if I am to become stuck in Half Moon Bay, I might as well have a meal while I’m at it. 

But a block down, I can hear a man advertising through his bullhorn for homemade tamales, only $3, here to make your misery in traffic better, to give your tired wife a break. I figure if I am to become stuck in Half Moon Bay, I might as well have a meal while I’m at it. 

The tamale is quickly gone, but I find myself in the company of its makers, parishioners of Our Lady of the Pillar Catholic church, which is right behind their tent. After giving a homeless man a tamale and making him a cup of coffee, the leader of the group, Jose, helps me get a charger and suggests I go to the church to find an outlet. 

In the church’s hallway, the priest allows me to charge my phone. Both he and the tamale stand volunteers seem to take a genuine, concerned interest in me, the kind where they ask me, throughout the two hours I wait with them, whether I still need a charger, where my Uber is, where I’m traveling to, etc. 

When my rideshare arrives, Jose yells into the bullhorn, “The Uber is here!” and his friends and family behind him cheer. 

The festival goes on for another day, bringing in customers for artisans and tamale-makers alike. Where the money goes may be obvious — a children’s program, the water polo team or vendors like the Loefflers. But the money isn’t always an end. The vendors enjoy their crafts and communities. It’s a collective of folks from disparate origins who, as Farmer Mike says, “are doing things for the right reasons.” In Half Moon Bay, following the money will only lead you back to the people.

Contact Alex Dang at [email protected]