It was a three-hawk drive to work this morning, the roads empty thanks to Christopher Columbus and the holiday some Americans celebrate in his honor (while others, including the population of Brown University, wrap the Italian explorer into a more nebulous celebration called “Fall Weekend”). The barren drive made for an easy commute, a diversion worthy of an Explorers’ Day, with leaves just beginning to turn and red-tails perched like statue idols on street lanterns along Route 4.
Traditionally the weekend most associated with spectacular New England foliage, Columbus Day and its Saturday/Sunday predecessors got clobbered by a stray hot summer or global climate change or whatever else is going on out there. Based on our own experiences, tour buses traveled landscapes alternatively still green-leafed, withered and dried, or dominated by large swaths of deadstick, with trunks and branches in their wind-stripped, rain-ripped forms, more suited for winter. Nothing peaked on the Mass Pike. The gentle slopes of western Massachusetts and Vermont offered their satisfying fare of glistening rivers and buzzing villages, covered bridges and country stores, but were devoid of the Oz-like color we’ve come to expect with colder nights and the thickening coats of goats and dogs.
New Hampshire saved us, especially the stretch between Campton and Canterbury, and the communities along the Pemigewasset River, our old stomping grounds, where the blend of cool green-and-blue evergreens wove seamlessly among crimson-and-orange sugar maples and the brilliant yellows of birches, blaring like bugles. The counterpoint of dramatic mountains, with their purple shadows making still life scenes on a canvas of blue sky, and the spectacular sweep of wooded rainbows along the slopes and riverbanks, satisfied the ritualistic itch that gets under the skin of most New Englanders every fall.
So we can wait a little longer in Rhode Island for whatever color will come this year, appreciating the individual trees and the little groves for providing moments of tranquility in the midst of a noisy and harsh political season, when knee-high cardboard signs in the weedy grass compete with Halloween decorations and the gathering hordes of pundits, press, politicians and PR hacks appear everywhere, shouting through their megaphones like competing carnival barkers, poisoning the air with cackling crow noises.
On the back roads of Rhode Island, as we prepare for autumn’s late arrival, we see dozens of witches, already snared mid-flight, having flown their broomsticks smack-dab into trees and telephone poles – in the same locations, we suspect, where each Christmas we find skeletal Santa Clauses stuck in chimneys. The gourd-happy members of the Southern New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Association have weighed their monster vegetables at Frerichs Farm in Warren. The gang at “Ghost Hunters,” a “Scooby-Doo” crew for adults, whose founders work as Roto-Rooter plumbers by day and investigators of the paranormal by night, threw Little Rhody a bone – launching its new season by examining the spectral happenings at Rose Island Lighthouse. (The same episode included an investigation of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The best moment: When Jason and Grant make an appeal to the baseball ghosts by saying “We’re from Rhode Island. We’re Red Sox fans.” You’d think that would get a few Yankee poltergeists stirring.)
We savor new autumn beers like Vermont’s Magic Hat IPA on Tour and Maine’s Peak Organic Fall Summit Ale, watching woodpiles in the neighborhood grow into pyramids against chain-link fences and observing herons hunting in the eelgrass along the cove. We ramble along at Four Town Farm – where horses and harvest scenes occupy the crossroads between Seekonk, Swansea, East Providence and Barrington – pausing to enjoy a murder of crows looting a pumpkin patch, the black birds and the orange gourds mixing the colors of Halloween.
The days shorten. The light lessens. Autumn moves like a cat in the rivergrass – senses heightened, stalking its ghost, seeing what we don’t in the tangle that lies just beyond.
What is your favorite autumn ritual?