Pumpkin Stuff, Cute Sweaters, Crisp Days
So it’s started. It starts every year, really, with the start of school. The “leaf themed” sales at the stores, even though school starts at the beginning of August these days. It progresses pretty quickly from there. Some years its Labor Day first, and then, the first not-hot day we have, a bunch of people talking about how it “smells like fall”, or “feels like fall”, or something like that. Other years, it’s the reverse, but every year it happens. And every year, I fight screaming at them to keep it to themselves. That I don’t want pumpkin-anything before October 30th. I fight a rising tide of anxiety. A rising wave of regret. Melancholy.
It’s funny how we, as a culture, trend toward stuff that’s new or pretty, versus what’s “good”. Growing up, we always had one of these trees in the orchard, and I never thought much about it – I just knew it was my “favorite” of the apples to eat. As with many things, I got older and moved away (and around), and I spent a lot of time buying grocery store and farmers market apples, and never found any that were as good to eat. Plenty that were prettier, plenty that were bigger, but none that were as good.
A few years back, I pulled my dad aside and asked him, “what are those called?”. “Grimes Golden – I think,” he said. Continuing, “they’ve been here for a long time, so I’m not exactly sure. I’ve planted a few when the older trees start to decline, just because I like them so much.” I laughed pretty hard at this – that he didn’t really know either – but his answer was better than mine. I’d always called them “ugly apples”, because they came off the tree a little rusty, and lumpy, and misshapen – but my oh my were they good.
I did a bit of research, and I think I agree – Grimes Golden. According to what I’ve read, they are a parent to the Golden Delicious apple – and a no kidding native of West Virginia, dating back to the 1830s in Brooke County. This may be my favorite part of autumn.
The Things That Happen
“Yeah man, that sounds like a hard drive problem, if your computer won't start”, I said.
“Cool, I think Jason and I will run over and see if we can get one. You coming in this weekend?”, he said.
“Yeah, I’ll be glad to see you. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. I’m seeing a girl, I’d love to talk to you about her.”
Sometime the next morning, I was awakened by a phone call. He was gone. Car accident.
My memories of that time are a bit of blur – some of it drunken – but I remember the leaves changing. Full color. I remember standing around with my friends. Peers. Realizing that it was probably all going to be different after that.
I have a photo of it. One of the most incredible photos of my life – I’m not sure who took it – because everyone is “in” the photo. Of all of us sitting under the maple tree in my parents yard, in a pile of leaves, all of us grieving in the cool, crisp, fall air.
I would leave the state within a year of that, with that girl I wanted to talk to him about.
I’d divorce her a decade later.
Fall truly is the most beautiful season here. The leaves are incredible, and it seems to be our “dry season”. Perfect for doing everything outside. Hiking, biking, rock climbing – they call it “Sendtember” around here. Everyone is psyched about playing outside – Gauley Season, Football Season.
We definitely turn it up a notch. Weekends packed to the gills – take a half-day on Friday, drive out to the mountains, get a couple of mile hike and setup camp before sunset. Get the sunrise, marvel at the beauty in the leaves changing, in the smell in the air. Drive through the hills and climb with your friends till dark – which isn’t that late – so you can have a few beers and dinner, and still be in bed before midnight, ready to do it again.
We push hard, because we know that literally the best thing we’ve seen all year may be just around the next curve or over the next hill.
But part of me thinks we push hard because we also know time is short. That in a few short weekends, it will be too dark to hit it after work, and too cold to camp happily.
The Day We Won. The Day We Lost
The conditions were perfect. It was dry. It was cool. The leaves were on fire. That’s a great thing about West Virginia. If you know the state, and watch the weather, you can chase the changing leaves from the high-country to the low-country, and stretch your fall out for a month or more. We were out on the early part of the change, September – in the top of the high country around Dolly Sods and Canaan Valley. We had pushed on an epic hike through the day – 8 miles – and returned to base camp with light in the sky – and realizing that it was about to be an incredible sunset. I motivated Carmen – motivating me too – that we should go for it. Worst case was an awesome walk in the evening. We thundered to the top of the ridge, and we made one of my favorite images and memories of the last several years as we crested to an astonishing sunset over the mountains. We rallied back to camp, and had a great evening with friends in a perfect Autumn night.
The next day, it felt like the wind was at our backs, that we could do no wrong, and we pushed on toward a spot that we had found earlier in the summer, and were sure we should return to. It was an epic campsite, on the spot of a long-gone firetower, but the views were nearly 360-degrees, and we had an incredible night as a couple, dancing like pagans around a fire, watching the stars wheeling through the sky. We arose the next morning, realizing that we had been pushing hard. That we were tired, and we decided to make a dog-leg past my parents house. Worst case, we’d get a delicious dinner out of the deal, and then have a mellow drive home on the interstate.
We got there mid-day, and had some food, and then the phone rang.
“There’s been an accident, no one can tell me what happened, but we have to go”
We got there, and our worst fears were realized.
Over the next week, I saw the best in people. I sat on the porch, shivering in my flannel, as the weather moved between Indian Summer and cold fall rain. And I realized it was going to be a long winter.
Ironic and Irrational
In the end, it will be ironic to me if what ultimately causes me to leave this state isn’t economic or environmental woes, or regressive politics, but the fall and winter. It isn’t fall’s fault – but I know what it means.
It means me staring my own mortality in the face. It’s me feeling like I have a set number of years left, and I’m about to spend 3 months sitting inside, waiting around in the dark and cold for something to change. Trying to stave off my aging through another season so I can get back to what I love again.
Because to me, Fall is waiting around for something bad to happen.
Because to me, Fall is like watching something I love die. Every year.
Because to me, Fall is making a plan to waste time.
One day, maybe, I’ll leave this place, and I’ll only see Fall when I want to. I’ll be able to see the leaves and smell the air and know, like the migrating birds, that it’s time to get the heck out of there, and spend the cold and dark months somewhere warm and light and not wasting time. Because I know what it means, and it’s later than you think.