A couple weeks back when the Maples started turning, I did 2 posts about how and why leaves change color in the Fall. This past weekend I spent as much time as possible up around 8,000 feet or so, and the colors were fantastic. The Aspens are peaking right now, and these are the best Fall colors I’ve seen in 18 years of living in the Western US.
Tangent: They might very well be the best Fall colors I’ve seen in my entire life, but the truth is that growing up in New England I was generally too disinterested to notice. (Isn’t that kind of sad?) Throughout so much of my late teens and early 20’s, when I should have been bike racing and checking out the New England foliage, I was too busy dinking around with motorcycles, smoking cigarettes, playing D&D, obsessing about getting (or rather trying to get) laid, and grinding away for 4 years to get a degree I had no interest in and never use. I sometimes think so many of my pursuits now in middle-age, like botany and bike-racing, are attempts to make up for my pissed-away young adult years.
Saturday a race-teammate and I did the best foliage mtn bike ride of my life: a 41-mile loop starting and ending in Pinebrook that looped the Mid-Mountain and Wasatch Crest trails and included some of my Pinebrook favorites: “Wallow” Trail, “X” Trail, and the diabolically frustrating but oh-so-lovely-when- you-clean-it “Finesse” Trail.
Tangent: My friends and I have “named” most of the Pinebrook-area trails in order to describe routes to each other. “Wallow” for example passes by a wet, muddy spring where Moose often wallow. “X “Trail takes off from a noticeable “X”-like junction with Mid-Mountain trail, and “Finesse” trail can only be cleaned with…. that’s right, finesse.
For much of the ride we wound through yellow Aspen glades on smooth singletrack. In other parts we passed through deep, dark PLT-forest, but with a bright yellowing understory of low shrubs and bushes, such that the ground seemed almost to be illuminated from below (pic right). And other times we passed by orange or red stands of Maple or Oak, even passing a few stands of scrub oak turning red (pic left). (Which is unusual; scrub oak usually turns a dull burnt-orange in the Fall.) There were just 2 of us- the best number for covering ground quickly- and we rode fast and strong and clean. It was a perfect ride on familiar and great trails with outstanding scenery. Though there’ll be plenty of rides yet, this one felt like the perfect finish to a wonderful living year.
One of the interesting things about this time of year is that the changing colors easily delineate the dividing lines between Aspen clones. Here’s a great example (right).
Here and there we spotted red aspen leaves, either in whole stands/clones, single trees or even just individual limbs (pic left). Red Aspen are a bit of a puzzle to me; they’re genetically red, which means that the same stands/trees turn red every year, but they do so in different degrees from year to year, sometimes turning bright red, other years a faint orangey-yellow. Why just a small minority of aspens should produce anthocyanins (if that’s in fact what they’re doing) is a mystery to me; if there’s a benefit gained, you’d think it’d be more common.
Sunday the family and I covered some of the same ground, taking the gondola up to Red Pine Lodge at The Canyons. We started a short hike that quickly degenerated into hanging out while the Trifecta (pic left) bushwhacked through one trail-less Aspen stand after another, which in retrospect is probably the best thing kids can do in a forest and way beat any regular “hike” we might have completed. We returned home via Guardsman Pass and down Big Cottonwood Canyon, a stretch that featured the best expanses of yellow Aspen I’ve seen yet.
I snuck out again before work this morning, pedaling up Upper Mill Creek in the dark, and then watching the sun rise up over the colored mountainsides from the Mill Creek saddle (bottom pic, right).
The saddest thing for me about the Fall colors has always been how quickly they pass; I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be if they lasted say 60 or 90 days. But this year I’ve come to wonder if their brief duration is part of their beauty. It’s not just the colors that are beautiful; it’s the change. It’s that they’re so in the present. The forest wasn’t like this 2 weeks ago, and it won’t be like this 2 weeks from now. It’s only like this right now, and in this way it’s beautiful not just like a painting or a great view, but also at the same time somehow like a particular instance when you heard a piece of music or a moment or time or memory with someone you love.
I’m doing a lousy job describing this. I guess to try another way: things that are changing, that don’t stay the same, that are only like the way they are right now, like foliage, or sunrises or children, have a certain kind of beauty that is distinct from the beauty of things that don’t change, and if you can manage pause or just re-focus enough to see this kind of impermanent beauty, then things like leaves falling or your kids growing up or you and your spouse growing old together don’t seem quite so sad.