Life of Pie: An American Odyssey

January 19, 2014
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What’s better than motorcycles and pie? Riding a motorcycle! My Honda and I have driven from coast to coast in sun and rain, on asphalt and dirt. Customizing and upkeep proved easier on the Hawk. I was sure that little 650 could make it, but was I willing to rough it?

The semi arid desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico, averages 12 inches of precipitation a year. Sunrise 6:46am, heavy rainfall, 79 degrees; the meteorologist declares a 100-year flood. I waited. It rained and I waited. 3:30pm I left my helmet and camping gear at home, grabbed my cowboy hat and got into the truck. Chips, water, gas and a sandwich; I’m on my way.

Music, road underneath, clouds hanging near to the ground making mountains hills, rain between, and me moving through it all towards the destination. My mindset was vast as the view, spread like grasses seeding themselves and sprouting with the moisture around the piñon and junipers in a prairie is dotted by wildflowers, like moments of euphoria.

Welcome to Socorro, check-in time 4:00 in the afternoon, sunset 7:16, then there is darkness.

I got a coffee and a late start, highway 60 west. Magdalena, the plains of San Agustin, a very large array, listening to supermassive blackholes, Datil, 21.3 miles to go. I go from being happy I hadn’t ridden and camped to regretting it, feeling my experience would have been more authentic. On a motorcycle, one doesn’t pass through geography, one is in it. Enveloped by it. Sky above, the body picking up the nuance of the ground, the fog, the cold, the scents and sense of being a part of it, seen without a barrier, direct exposure.

I roll down the window. Scattered showers predicted throughout the day. I had made the right decision. I rolled up my sleeve. I extended my arm. Rain in the desert is indescribable, the smell, the colors and the light. In every detail there is a splendor one cannot identify; there’s too much to remember. Feelings so big this wide western land can’t contain them. My feelings are akin to the immense landscape, with me, my body on a motorcycle, tiny out there in it.

Life of Pie


As I parked at just under 8,000 feet along the continental divide, signed up for the pie eating contest, the kids’ stick-horse rodeo and the horny toad races had already begun. Entries were being accepted in the volunteer fire station; at 10:30am judging begins. ‘Keep an ear open for results at the park,’ reads the website. ‘Winning pies will be auctioned on the band breaks!!!!!.’

Annually on the day before the second Saturday in September, locals gather from morning till late to prepare (this year 228) pies, then take home and bake till 1 in the morning; returning them the next day to be sold at Pie Town’s concession stand during this movable feast. Pie Festival, held in Jackson Park, is 75 acres of free dry camping; you can’t miss it.

Population had peaked when Russell Lee photographed Pie Town, USA, for the Farm Securities Administration, part of the new deal. When I arrived, the 87827 Post Office still only served about 200, averaging one person per square mile, though not the 60 of them who live in town, and not at festival time.

The T-shirts and hats, etc. sold at the souvenir stand, the pies, and the vendor fees raise money for the pie town council. The council may give a small scholarship to a promising high school senior. Unexpected medical bills? Petition the counsel for aid, or maybe your house burned down. Basically it’s a fund raiser for the town for repairs, clean ups or subsidizing dances, bingo, but mostly it’s great fun.

I went by myself. I walked around. In this small town atmosphere I was not alone, nor did I feel out of place. People are friendly. Everyone says hello. No security guards, no entrance fees, dogs off the leash, no collars, children run around unsupervised, not a policed atmosphere, a country band is playing, no posted rules, no face recognition technology, everyone already recognizes each other. Relax, have a drink. They bring their own. A woman, taking sips of whiskey and holding cans of beers, shared among friends.

Life of Pie

There are food booths, a fancy soda vendor, jewelry, old bottles, records, wooden craft, cowboy hats, native American trinkets, local authors selling their books, and an environmental booth. The festival is manageable scale; one can do and see everything without getting overwhelmed, except the pies. The pies are overwhelming.


My first piece of pie. Blackberry. Coffee? A man in cowboy gear bought the last cup. I follow him. He seats himself at a picnic table where three college girls are taking swigs of red wine from a bottle, open container, no brown bags, no hiding here. I joke, offering him double what he paid; he pours half in a cup for me. It’s a pleasure to meet you, breakfast complete. He says we can all take our masks off, it’s down to earth here, be whoever we are, get along and love each other. I wondered if the Baptist Church, the Latter Day Saints and the Seventh-day Adventists all represented in town would object to such freedom. God bless America. Apple pie.

There are kids playing on a cable spools. ‘Hey mom, when you finish can you sit right there and watch me,’ pointing to the picnic table. Piñon nut pie. I pet dogs and meet more people, eat more pie. The college girls had entered a marshmallow chocolate chip flavor. I try it. Too sweet. Men with cowboy hats play horseshoe on the edge of the grass in the park, where basketball hoops were installed and paid for by a previous year’s festival fund. Pecan pie. Noon. I talk to more people and get invited to stay with them the following year. Peach pie. I need to eat something, not pie, something nutritious. Frito pie!

The coffee man’s band is playing across the street. He wants me to listen and to buy me a piece of pie from the Pie-O-Neer. Green chile apple pie. It’s a New Mexico original. I’ve never had it but I wanted to try it. It sounded delicious, but I was afraid. I love everything, flour, chile, sugar, butter, spicy, green… it’s unusual, classic, but I’m not fond of mixing sweet and savory.

In the spirit of pie festival one has to try everything, all the pies. I want to try all the pies, there are no bad pies, but one has to eat a lot of pie before one finds the one, before one can settle on the whole pie, the keeper. The one to take home. The pie you could eat every day. A recipe to incorporate into your repertoire. The flavors did not marry; though I’m against marriage, in food I want all the separate tastes to mingle… legalize flavor polygamy! The green chile apple pie tasted like two separate flavors living two parallel lives, uninspired by each other; just because they had at some point found themselves in the same pot, they remained, neither changing nor effecting the other, a life spent side by side but not together.


3pm, I cross the street returning to the park. Crowning of the pie Queen. It’s not me. I walk around some, no more pie for me. By now people knew my name. The hippy lady calls me and gives me a ride to the community center, where Karaoke is about to begin. The coffee man is there too, and a huge group of cool kids from Las Cruces. They sing, I can’t sing, coffee man sings to me. More people sing, country songs, together or alone, and other pop stuff. The septic tank man sings. His daughter sings too. Everyone, not just the ones who sang before, is asked to sing the star spangled banner. So here it goes, half the number of the population of pie town all facing the monitor, singing one song together. I synchronized.

Life of Pie

Sunset 8:48pm, dance till midnight! I liked walking on the dirt road towards the pavilion, one can see the town. A cowboy stops in a huge truck. Get in, he says, I’ll give you a ride. Luckily I’m strong and don’t need to be airlifted, but at this altitude the view of the town sure is great. The band, a group of 80-year-old guys, and an equally advanced woman playing and singing country songs in a screechy voice. Who said I can’t sing? I get asked to two-step. I step on two shoes and don’t get asked again; the hippy lady, the cool cruces kids, and other familiars making up dances of their own.

The criteria are overall appearance, crust and taste, 1st, 2nd, 3rd; the categories are fruit, nut, other, and youth; no dairy or anything needing refrigeration or you’re in trouble with the health department. You don’t get your pie or your pie-pan back, and if you’re a winner and as pretty as your pie your photo will be used. A copy of your recipe is very much appreciated for possible future cook book, please sign on the dotted line.

The pies are displayed in a cabinet with glass shelves, next to the bandstand. The auction begins. High bids are between 20 and 30 dollars. The auctioneer reaches into the shelf to get the next pie and the whole thing collapses from under its goodness. The shelves break and the pies fall. They fall on top of each other. The winning pie, peach cardamom falls into summer lemon and cilantro, NM apple and green chile, just add cinnamon, peach mix with pumpkin.

The dogs are there before the first pie has splashed onto the ground. Licking the ground, following their nose, they creep closer to the action. People rush in between dogs and shelves trying to catch and save the pies, if not from the ground then from the dogs. Opportunists sticking a finger in for a taste, more rush to the scene and soon every one is feeding each other pie and licking it off the shelves, the dogs still licking the floor, and children have pie smeared all over their faces.


Sorry to interrupt this story with my fantasy, the first part is true and also the part about the dogs, but that’s where it ended. The pies were scooped up to the best of the auctioneers’ ability, plopped back into their pans and sold anyway. The band plays on. I bid on the second to last pie, strawberry rhubarb. At $45 it’s mine. The grand champion I was told in the past had fetched as much as $800. But on this rainy night, turnout was small and not many people were left. I wanted to try it. Sweet potato pie. I bid. I borrowed money. It was just the two of us now. After the young hipster standing next to me didn’t have any more 20s to lend me, the winning bid at a mere $200 went to the real cowboy standing on the other side of me. He didn’t look like he kept his boots, hat, buckle, wranglers or his liquor in a closet until the weekend; it was all well used. But he was a gentleman, he gave me a piece of his pie to try. The slice was worth as much as I had paid for my entire pie, I offered him some but he refused the second best. I gave back the twenties and shared my slice with the hipster and his friends. I looked around and that’s what everyone was doing with the ones they’d won. Everyone was eating pie.

Life of Pie

Just when you’d thought it was finished, as did I, it goes on. After-party at the Toaster House, a house where the hippy lady had raised her four children, which got its name from the toasters decorating the fence posts. After the divorce it became a kind of hostel, an open house for hikers of the continental divide, the door never locked, with a pot of spaghetti on the stove, one meat and one vegetarian sauce. There I met the ex husband. The cruces kids, super-cool with tattoos and vintage clothing, brought their guitars, violins, banjos guitars and singing voices. A very drunk young man howls his approval to their playing.

Around the bonfire many more people and in the kitchen too. There I meet the young blonde with the handle bar mustache. He slides the pies in the wood-burning oven. Apple ginger, quince, and a guava-paste pie. The spaghetti just ran out. I eat more pie. I’m sure it’s a special skill the young blonde bakes with, though the history of pies goes back even further in time, medieval time when pies were cooked on an open fire, because access to ovens was restricted. Pies were the earliest processed food, before processed foods and shrink wrap; what better way to enclose a little something to take on your journey? Who says you can’t have your pie and eat the wrapping too?

A pie is a baked dish, containing a savory or sweet filling in a pastry. The oldest pies go back to the new stone age in Egypt, 9500 BC, little pockets containing honey. The Greeks followed, then the Romans elevated the tradition to it’s most extravagant. With living pies. Various live animals were baked into pies. They would dip doves in perfume and bake them into a pie. When they sliced the pie open the doves would fly out, spreading the scent over the diners with each flap of their wings. They even went so far as to bake dwarfs into their living pies, who would jump out and walk along the banquet table entertaining the guests as they ate pie.

Life of Pie

Special recipes existed on how to bake without killing and cut without injury. Through Roman roads and conquests the pie spread across Europe. In the Americas, the pilgrims used berries and fruits shown to them by Native Americans; eventually it gets us to today, apple pie. But why have such a narrow definition of pie, why not broaden our definitions and pallets when we have thousands of years to draw on? The world is full of pie. Kue ramput, quiche, pizza pie, pirog, beef Wellington, kueh pie tee… empanadas anyone?

So why can’t we just get along and love each other like the coffee man suggests, not just in Pie Town but in your town as well? Could it be because you don’t eat enough pie? Enough fruit pie, nut pie, frito pie, other pie, cream pie, shepard’s pie, pizza pie, humble pie, filled pie, pot pie, that’s chicken pot pie, shoofly pie, living pie, or hair pie. Make your next fundraiser a fun raiser! May I suggest the Adult Pie Festival to raise funds for whatever you and yours or your town’s needs may be. Be as creative as your mind is inventive. Women would auction off their pies to the highest bidder. Bring back living pies even, instead of women jumping out of cakes, bake men into pies, be sure to follow the recipe very closely and perhaps experiment with smaller mammals first. So you see, everyone wins, everyone gets to eat pie and I’m sure the funds would pour in. Eat pie for world piece, go down and love each other.

Early Sunday morning, or the middle of night I leave the high plateau in hopes of different minerals, vitamins and perhaps a few amino acids. Having eaten nothing but pie the day before which may not be a nutritionally balanced diet, I found out the next day that it makes for excellent roughage. ‘For those still in the park after noon on Sunday, thank you for staying to help clean up.’ It’s not a rule but official Pie Town policy.


8 slices of pie, 1 flat tire, 1 ticket and 5 inches of rain later, I was on my way home. 222 miles to Santa Fe. The quarter of the strawberry rhubarb pie I had won at auction on the seat next to me would not survive the trip.

The experiences, the music, the road, the trees, the first color of fall, backlit by the sun from the angle of setting, clouds appearing to move quickly against the skyline of the mountains, the light is so fucking beautiful I want to cry because I know memory won’t capture it, nature will change it, and my words can’t express it.

So what’s better? Eating pie of course!

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