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October 2, 2011

My Fall Colors Are Better Than Your Fall Colors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We human beings love superlatives.  In fact, it’s well known that we enjoy these more than any other species in the universe.  Check it out, it’s in Wikipedia.    

It’s fall.  The manifestation of our love of superlatives is everybody is boasting that their fall colors are better than their neighbor’s. 

It starts with New England claiming trump over everyplace else in the U.S.  I lived there for a year and a half including the autumn of 1988.  I took a couple of hikes in the Appalachians as well as several nice bike rides in rural areas near the coast.  And I lived in the foliage typical of Boston suburbs.  Fall colors do vary quite a bit year to year and fall of ’88 may just have been mediocre, but I was distinctly unimpressed. 

Fall colors is not a major claim to fame for the Sierras.  Fall climbing is.  I usually got into the range in September or October to climb.  This often meant traipsing up and down the desert laying east of the range.  Most of this was covered by sparse sage, but streams rolling off the mountains fed trees and groundcover in the ravines they carved.  In the fall these turned and the result was glacier like tongues of bright color extending out from the mountains into the desert.  There were a couple of autumns that the beauty of this caught me completely off guard. 

My first fall in Montana was 2003.  Bob Chlupach gave me an open ticket to visit his house on weekends to run dogs and learn about mushing.  I headed up every Saturday.  Dawn, Tenaya, and I were living in a house west of Missoula, about an hour and a quarter away from Bob’s.  In order to get there in time for the morning runs, we left while it was still dark.  Sunrise would usually catch us as we were driving around Salmon Lake.   Salmon runs north-south and the highway is on the eastern side.  It was hard to keep my eyes on the road as the morning alpenglow lit up tamarack blanketing the slopes on the opposite side of the lake.  Prior to that fall, I didn’t know there were deciduous conifers like tamarack.  Light reflects differently off of needles than it does off of leaves like those of aspen, poplar, or maple.  It’s like tiny golden  crystals.  Nothing I saw that one fall in New England came close to this.

The usual sequence in Montana is groundcover and aspen, then poplar, then tamarack.  Right now, the aspen are peaking.  Poplar are right there as well.  The color has just started in the tamarack.  Color does vary a lot from year to year.  Some years have been ho-hum.  Some years have been spectacular.  Still, I haven’t experienced the enchantment I did that first fall driving to Bob’s to learn how to run dogs. 

So, here’s a hypothesis:  What really makes fall colors is not how they actually are, but how they were when we saw them as kids.  The reason New Englanders cling so strongly to the superlative quality of their fall colors is they are comparing memories from their childhoods with adult experiences years later.  It’s the same for me.  The reason the colors I saw in fall, 2003, were so enchanting was it was the start of my second childhood.   

   
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