It's hard not to smile when you see a pumpkin fly through the air.
Whether the pumpkin disintegrates before it leaves the Aludium Q36 Pumpkin Modulator, flies a half-mile after being launched from a spring-loaded catapult, drops like a stone 30 feet in front of a trebuchet built by a bunch of high school physics students or gets chucked by a 4-year-old who has entered the hand-toss competition, this is good ol' down-home fun, the way they do it in Morton, Ill., a farming town just southeast of Peoria. There, they think pumpkin pie, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin chili and, of course, pumpkin chucking. Or, in the local vernacular, punkin chuckin'.
This year, the Morton Chamber of Commerce will sponsor its 10th annual Punkin Chuckin' festival Oct. 21-22. Folks from around the Midwest are expected to show up with their catapults, trebuchets and cannons to blast unsuspecting pumpkins across a farmer's field, hoping to break the mile barrier.
My family and I made the three-hour drive last year in search of fall foliage and a few laughs. Both were in ample supply, along with a host of friendly folks offering free hayrides over to Green Acres Farm next door, where we picked our pumpkins, bought beautiful mums, got lost in the corn maze and climbed over the inflatable obstacle course (at least the kids did), all for less than $20.
But the highlight was the punkin chuckin' ($5 per carload).
There, we learned the difference between a catapult and a trebuchet (catapults use springs to increase the thrust; trebuchets use only counterweights) and rooted for the team of students from Warren High School in Gurnee that built a trebuchet, named it Failed Negotiations and got Mitch Jozefowski's dad, Alex, to haul it to Morton behind a pickup. The designers predicted the pumpkin would fly 200 feet. It went a very respectable 307 feet, earning the team second place and $35.
Get close to nature
But punkin chuckin' isn't the only thing to do around Peoria.
If you're into the outdoor experience, head over to Wildlife Prairie State Park in Hanna City. We stayed in the park as guests of the Peoria Convention and Visitors Bureau in a railroad caboose that has been renovated into a comfy hotel room. There also are former silos and stables that have been converted into accommodations and a hilltop log cabin with a breathtaking view across the colorful landscape. Prices for two people range from $60 per night for the caboose during the week to $100 per night for the cabin on weekends. Each additional person is $10 per night.
Bring a cooler and you could easily stay on site for two nights, cooking and eating in the picnic area just outside the cabooses and next to the pasture where the deer, elk and bison roam. My daughter, Tess, 10, adopted a deer soon after we arrived, named him Eddie, and was distraught when she couldn't find him the next morning to say goodbye. The caboose includes a small refrigerator, microwave and coffee pot; there's a bathroom with a shower and, should you visit in October, a welcome furnace.
Go during Halloween season and participate in "Wildlife Scary Park." Scheduled for Oct. 20-21 and 27-29 this year, the event is free with park admission ($5.50 ages 13 and over, $3.50 ages 4-12, free ages 3 and under and for guests staying overnight at the park).
The wonderful event includes local businesses that give out candy to trick-or-treaters and a ride on the mini-railroad through the park. From 5-7 p.m., it's a "Merry Not-So-Scary Park," in which costumed characters line the train path, waving and wishing riders a happy Halloween.
At 7 p.m., the happy characters turn slightly more sinister and jump out and scare the riders instead. We tried to ride the train, but gave up at 10:30 p.m. We already had spent 45 minutes waiting in line and realized we had another hour to go before it would be our turn to board the train. Fortunately, the train runs every day through Oct. 31, so we saved our tickets ($2 each) and jumped on board the next morning to see all the scenes where the costumed characters would have lain in wait for us. Not as scary, but the train ride still was fun.
This 2,000-acre park is filled with walking trails, fishing ponds and wildlife. A reptile house offered us an up-close look at a rattlesnake and taught us the difference between a turtle and a tortoise (turtles live in water, tortoises on land).
Granted, it wasn't as much fun as watching a pumpkin blast out of a cannon. But that would be hard to top, no matter how hard you try.