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Bobby McDuffie | For The Herald-Dispatch Marshall Thundering Herd head coach Doc Holliday is seen on the sideline during an NCAA football game between the Herd and Louisiana Tech on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, at Joe Aillet Stadium in Ruston, La.

AAA says road trips will rule this fall; leaf-peeping trips encouraged

HUNTINGTON — The vast majority of trips this fall will be road trips, according to a recent AAA travel survey.

The survey showed that 80% of all trips in the fall will be automobile travel.

“The pandemic has given many Americans a reason to dream about their next getaway,” Bevi Powell, senior vice president, AAA East Central, said in a news release. “This is leading to a rise in road trips to scenic American destinations.”

In a sign of the rising popularity of auto travel this fall, use of AAA’s road trip planning tool has doubled compared to the spring and early summer, the release said.

Lower prices at the gas pump may also be motivating some would-be travelers to hit the road this fall. On average, gas prices nationally are nearly 50 cents cheaper than this time last year and are the cheapest fall prices since 2016. West Virginia gas prices are averaging just over $2.20 a gallon for regular unleaded, according to AAA.

The West Virginia Tourism Office is recommending a fall foliage road trip as colors are spreading from the eastern mountains to the north-central regions of the state.

“Fall color is popping up all over the state,” said West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby. “While some of our higher elevations have peaked, there are still several weeks’ worth of leaf peeping ahead in southern West Virginia and the panhandles.”

Ruby said for the best views this weekend, seek out areas in north-central and eastern West Virginia, where color is between 75% and 100%, with some of the highest elevations just past peak.

“Warm hues are saturating the hills of Randolph County along Cheat Mountain west toward Kumbrabow State Forest and the Swiss mountain village of Helvetia, and in Webster County from Williams River in the south to Holly River State Park in the north,” she said.

Travelers are encouraged to share their favorite fall photos using #AlmostHeaven to help populate the Tourism Office’s live leaf map available at WVtourism.com/fall.

“There are several areas of our state that still need those iconic fall photos added to the map,” said Ruby. “The live leaf map is to help travelers plan their future fall getaway or bring those along for a virtual journey through fall color, so I encourage all West Virginia fans to post your favorite fall photos of Almost Heaven.”

Ruby added that travelers visiting West Virginia to see fall color are encouraged to check the status of individual businesses before taking a trip. A statewide indoor face covering requirement is in effect and visitors are encouraged to maintain a safe social distance when traveling the state, she said.

To access the foliage forecast, visit WVtourism.com/fall.

Though fall festivals were squashed, growers raised giant pumpkins anyway

CHARLESTON — Leaves are falling and the air is getting cooler, but the festivities of fall have been muffled, if not entirely muted.

The wave of fair and festival cancellations caused by the coronavirus pandemic has continued past the summer. There was no Forest Festival in Elkins, no Black Walnut Festival in Spencer and the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival in Milton was canceled.

Over the phone, Cindy Hinkle, the Pumpkin Festival president, sighed and said, “First time, after 30-some years. It was very sad for us.”

But what happened to the champion, giant-sized pumpkins — the pumpkins that weigh as much as small cars?

Chris Rodebaugh from Lewisburg, West Virginia, was the Pumpkin Festival’s 2019 pumpkin champion. He won the festival’s largest pumpkin contest last year with a 1,384-pound pumpkin.

A family dentist, Rodebaugh said he was inspired to try growing his own giant pumpkin after a trip to the State Fair of West Virginia.

“I always go,” he said. “I saw one that was 200 or 300 pounds, and I thought that was pretty cool.”

He went online and researched what a gardener needed to do to grow that kind of a pumpkin.

“I really fell down the rabbit hole,” he said, laughing.

His first season, Rodebaugh grew a 1,550-pound pumpkin.

“And I thought, ‘Wow, I’m pretty good at this,’” he said.

Justin Conner, last year’s third-place grower from Culloden, said the giant pumpkins are fun to grow.

“My family gets a lot of joy in just watching them grow,” he said.

Conner and Rodebaugh begin their pumpkins in late April or May, which is ahead of when seeds for pie or jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are typically planted in July.

The giant pumpkins face the same sort of pests that trouble the smaller varieties — deer, groundhogs and the ravenous squash vine borer.

Conner uses a fence and pesticides, which helps with the borer. Rodebaugh said he tried hot pepper powder to keep the deer away. That only slowed them down, but he settled on an electric fence.

“That keeps them away just fine,” he said.

After the plants fruit, the pumpkins grow fast, both growers said.

How fast?

“This year, mine was growing 40 pounds a day at its peak,” Conner said. “You can actually go out and watch it grow. At peak, they’ll grow 3, 4, 5 inches a day.”

After the Pumpkin Festival was canceled in July, Conner said he and his family decided to keep growing their monster pumpkin.

At Labor Day, he said they had a real trophy winner.

“It was 980 pounds,” he laughed.

But then things took a turn for the worse. Not long after Labor Day, the area got a bunch of rain. The pumpkin soaked up the water like a sponge and split open.

“By then, it was too late for us to start anything else,” Conner said.

He probably would have had a hard time keeping up with growing the pumpkin anyway. In early September, Conner caught COVID-19.

“I had a pretty bad case,” he said. “I was away from work for 38 days.”

Conner only recently returned to work.

Rodebaugh had trouble this year, too. He said the weather worked against him and he really didn’t have his soil fixed. His best pumpkins for this year failed, but he did manage to grow a 955-pound green squash, which is a state record.

“And that’s pretty cool,” he said.

Both growers said they would try again next year.

Conner has already cleared the plot where his family will raise the next monster pumpkin and planted a cover crop for the winter.

He has high hopes.

Rodebaugh does, too.

“I’m happy about the squash, and I have the state record for the biggest carrot, the state record for the tallest sunflower and the biggest sunflower head,” he said. “These are all accolades — hooray — but nothing compares to the pumpkin.

“It’s the Super Bowl.”

For those who didn’t grow their own pumpkins (giant or otherwise), farmers markets are practically overrun with them.

JoAnna Hays at Ed & Ellen’s at Capitol Market in Charleston said people have been buying a lot of what they put out, particularly the painted pumpkins, which she said are coated to last longer than a raw pumpkin.

Ron Crihfield of Crihfield Farms said it’s been a bit slower for him, but he’s still selling a lot of produce.

“People are buying some of the carnival-type pumpkins,” he offered.

Crihfield expected pumpkin traffic to pick up, and soon.

Shrewd pumpkin pickers will pluck up the best of the lot the first or second weekend in October, the grower said, but last weekend’s rains probably reduced the crowds.

There are still good pumpkins, but they won’t last.

Pumpkins will keep for weeks as long as you don’t carve into them or drop a gourd hard on the ground. Once the skin of the pumpkin is cut or the flesh bruised, it will begin to rot.

The West Virginia Pumpkin Festival will return to Milton next year — at least, organizers hope to.

“We started planning for next year just as soon as we had to cancel for this year,” Hinkle said. “We hope to be back a little bigger than before.”

States shatter early voting records

Millions of Americans are breaking voter-turnout records with three weeks to go before Election Day, with Democrats casting early ballots at a far higher rate than Republicans.

Concerns about the coronavirus pandemic have increased mail-in voting and led to unprecedented levels of early voting. More than 17 million voters have cast their ballot early, either in person or by mail, in states that report voting data, according to the University of Florida Elections Project.

As President Donald Trump and the Republican Party bet on Election Day in-person turnout, states that he won by a small margin in 2016 are seeing more Democrats voting early.

With 16 days of frenetic campaigning by Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden still ahead, many states allow early voting. This year, with enthusiasm running high, voters have already cast nearly 13% of the total votes counted in the 2016 general election.

Battleground states like Ohio and Georgia among others have already set records in voter turnout. In other critical states, such as Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin, early voting turnout has already reached 20% or more of the total turnout for the 2016 election.

In West Virginia, registered voters who want to cast their general election ballots in person early can do so beginning Wednesday, Oct. 21. Cabell County voters can vote from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Cabell County Courthouse in Huntington, Marshall University in Huntington and at Milton City Hall.

Early voting in West Virginia is available through Oct. 31.

Nationally, Democrats are significantly outpacing Republicans in early voting turnout in the 15 states that report party registration data, according to the Elections Project. Democrats have returned almost 2.5 million more ballots in those states than Republicans have. Meanwhile, Democrats have requested 9.7 million more ballots than Republicans.

The Republican Party said its supporters will make up the difference Nov. 3.

“The majority of our voters prefer to vote in person, especially on Election Day,” said RNC spokesman Mike Reed. “Campaigns are won by who turns out more voters in total, not by who turns out more in the first few days of voting. We don’t put much stock in the early vote data at this point, which is only from a handful of states and in some cases contains only partial data.”

Biden is leading Trump in surveys of voters nationwide and in the key states that could decide the Electoral College victory. The early turnout figures don’t necessarily indicate who will win the election, just the preferred method of voting by each party.

Data compiled by secretaries of state show that in Pennsylvania, a critical battleground that Trump won by 44,000 votes, almost 2.7 million ballots were requested — with 65% of the requests coming from Democrats and 24% from Republicans. Of the almost 518,000 voted ballots returned so far, 76% are from Democrats and 16% from Republicans, data shows.

“Voters are strapping on their masks, they’re bringing hand sanitizer, they’re bringing a book to wait in line and a stool and a snack and they’re going to show up to vote,” David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, said on a call with reporters Thursday. “They’re going to do whatever they need to, and it’s probably on both sides of the partisan equation.”

Michigan and Wisconsin don’t report party registration data. But modeled data by TargetSmart showed that of the 44,000 first-time voters in Michigan, where Trump won narrowly in 2016, Democrats so far have an 8-point lead compared to Republicans. In Wisconsin, where Trump won by 23,000 votes, Democrats have a 5-point lead among the 57,000 first-time voters.

In Texas, a state where Trump is leading Biden, more than 1 million voters cast their ballots on the first day of early voting last week, according to the Houston Chronicle. Officials from Harris County, which includes Houston, said about 128,000 voters showed up to cast their ballots, nearly double the 67,741 on the first day of 2016.

Georgia, where the two nominees are tied, saw a record turnout on the first day of early voting Monday, with in-person turnout surging more than 40% above the previous record set in the 2016 election, the secretary of state announced. Over 128,590 voters cast ballots, compared to 90,688 on the first day of early voting in 2016.

But the surge in early voting also meant long lines and wait times. Pictures surfacing on social media showed voters in Georgia bringing chairs, snacks and phone battery chargers to polling places as they waited as long as 12 hours to cast their vote.

In Ohio, early voter turnout tripled from the voters that cast their ballots in the first week compared to the same time frame in 2016, according to the secretary of state. In Illinois, officials announced Thursday that the state shattered previous records in early voting with more than 790,962 ballots already cast, either via mail or in person.

The two parties have different messaging around voting amid the pandemic. Biden has urged supporters to vote early, while Trump has sought to raise concerns about mail-in voting being fraudulent.