I've driven for hours—crawling in L.A. traffic under the bright midday sun, winding my way up through shady Bouquet Canyon in the Angeles National Forest and finally sloping down into wide, breezy Leona Valley to reach the end of this mile-long dirt road where a small, hand-painted sign hung on a wire fence announces (in English and Farsi!) that I've arrived at the Cherry Tyme Sour Pie Cherry Orchard.
It's the only sour cherry orchard in Southern California, though to a San Diegan, this is pretty far north. These days, I've been taking long, lonely weekend drives, and it helps you feel like you're going somewhere if you give yourself a destination.
It's not much to look at: a wooden stand, a table stacked with white buckets, a picnic bench, a few acres of shrub-like cherry trees in rows, many of them dead, and a small ranch house at the far end of the property.
Cultivated by the Greeks, Romans and Persians centuries ago and still favored among the people from those regions, who make up the vast majority of visitors to this orchard, sour cherries are in fact also sweet, but the pucker factor can be intense, especially for Americans used to their sweet and mellow, heartier cousins. The season is only two weeks and they're very perishable, so you'll never find them fresh in your grocery store. If you want sour cherries, you have to seek them out.
The proprietor of Cherry Tyme is Gerry Dickey, a lanky, solid, 68-year-old former electrical mechanic for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power who looks powerful enough to rip a tree right out of the ground but approaches you with wisdom, patience and good will. Dressed in an immaculate, white, long-sleeve cotton shirt, khakis and a wide-brimmed straw hat when I meet him, he's the kind of guy only Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper could've played in a movie. And the story of Cherry Tyme would make a pretty good one.
Dickey tells me that Leona Valley was homesteaded in 1914 by a man named Sharp, and he points out the massive, 95-year-old walnut trees from the original ranch.
“The cherry orchards in the valley weren't put in until after World War II. This was the first one. There's a guy named Don Hobart that has a sweet-cherry orchard, and he's the first one to put in sweet cherries here, but this is the first orchard, regardless of what Hobart says,” he says, laughing at the dispute.
Why grow cherries here?
“This is just about the right elevation,” he says. “They get enough cold in the winter, but, more importantly, they don't get too much frost late.”
Were the orchards more robust before?
“They were already dying when I took over in 2000,” he says.
While we talk, a woman and her young son park and approach. Gerry chops down a few higher branches from a Montmorency tree—its brighter and sweeter cherries are the tart cherry Americans favor—so that she and her son can sit in the shade and pick “just enough cherries to make a pie,” she says.
“I only have about 500 people on my e-mail list,” Dickey says. “If the trees were better, there would be more.”
What does the future look like for him here?
“I haven't been able to take care of it,” he says. “My wife's an invalid. I've got to take care of her. I might be able to do it if I could get the trees to replace the dead ones, but they're almost impossible to find.”
A woman steps out of the orchard with barely a couple handfuls of cherries. “I'm done,” she says. “It's hot out there.” As she heads to the stand to dump her bucket of cherries into a small box, Dickey yells to his lone teenage assistant, Grant, “No charge on those. Don't take that money!'
What would it take to bring the orchard back?
“Gary Shafer, this guy down here who has the big sweet-cherry orchard coming up from Palmdale, he came in with a giant bulldozer, ripped the soil down six feet, fertilized it with 100 truckfulls of cow poop. And the pipe from the aqueduct comes right down through his property, so he's got good water and can water his whole orchard at once.”
Can anyone compete with him?
“There's 25 little guys around. And he's basically killing 'em. He and his wife are nice people, very energetic, very smart.”
Do you think the others will survive?
“It will be interesting to see. A lot of them have already thrown in the towel.”
Two women have planted themselves at the shaded picnic table to eat the smaller, deep-red, ultra-tart Morello cherries they've picked and to wash them down with strong, sweet coffee from a thermos, which they graciously share with me.
These cherries remind them of home. Almost, they say, but not quite as good as the ones in Armenia.
As the sun sets, Dickey hops in his electric cart and heads back to the house to prepare dinner for his wife. “Stay as late as you want,” he tells me.
An ethereal breeze blows through the valley, and I'm alone in the spreading shadows of the orchard, plucking and dropping the dark Morellos into my bucket one at a time, carefully, methodically, keeping the stems intact on the branch just like Gerry showed me. That way, he explained, there will be cherries next year.Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.