Fall Hiking Leads to Different "Peak" Experiences

Dave Anderson | October 25, 2014
Colorful autumn leaves make a nice NH foliage season souvenir

October is a Goldilocks month. It's neither too hot, nor too cold; no hazy humidity, no bugs, no snow… or at least no appreciable accumulation is likely. Warm cobalt-blue sky afternoons and cool wood smoke evenings are perfect for ascending New Hampshire’s famed summits to admire the foliage. Long shadows and the golden quality of slanting alpine light is unique to autumn.

Many formative New Hampshire memories are forged while hiking in autumn woods. Perhaps thousands of students and alumni from spirited college Outing Clubs explore the peaks of the White Mountains each autumn. On Columbus Day Weekend, I joined the conga line of hikers crossing spectacular Franconia Ridge and even met several parties of people I know who had the same idea. I eavesdropped on summit banter – much of it in French - on Mount Lafayette, Lincoln and Little Haystack. There’s often speculation about the identities of surrounding peaks. Yes, there’s a smartphone app. for that called “peakfinder” (www.peakfinder.org).

With my hiking companion, I reminisced how the Plymouth State University Outing Club first introduced me the most-popular White Mountain destinations. Upperclassmen recruited freshmen and sophomores most inclined to mountain adventures. We literally learned the ropes with opportunities for rock climbing, day hiking, paddling and extended weekend backpacking and camping trips. PSU Outing Club was a formative experience for many of us as we gained experience and familiarity with NH trails.

On my first hike to ever-popular Mount Major, I had collected fallen red maple leaves scattered on the trail and swirling in a brook.

colorful leaves afloat in a NH brook

Back on campus, I used a battered ski wax iron to press the leaves between layers of wax paper to preserve their vibrant colors. At that time, I had been thinking about my ailing maternal grandmother living alone in Connecticut. I feared I might not see her again. So I wrote her a long letter about college and the beauty I discovered while exploring the hills of New Hampshire. I was happy and I felt fortunate. I wanted her to know. I enclosed those colorful leaves. My grandmother loved white birch trees and lakes of New Hampshire, both reminiscent of her girlhood home in rural Finland.

She saved my letter and leaves. After she died the following year, my parents cleaned out her apartment and found my letter and leaves envelope tucked in a desk drawer. After her memorial service, they returned it to me. Those perfect autumn leaves - now faded but worth their weight in gold for the connection they afforded now that she was gone. She’d touched each leaf I had chosen. I think about her when I hike Mount Major. There’s something nostalgic in the rustling of fallen autumn leaves.

Consider the same for an aged loved one of your own? Each of us will one day reach our own personal autumn. One day we’ll no longer aspire to the windy summits of well-spent youth. Savor the last of this year’s colorful leaves. Perhaps you might send some in an envelope to someone special with NH ties of their own. It’s been a great fall foliage season.

Autumn delivers undeniable metaphors. Compared with the exuberance of spring and industrious mid-life productivity of summer, the golden weeks of harvest season represent wisdom and maturity. Another year now ripened to perfection before the inevitable coming of snow – winter’s little death. It all happens so fast – just as time accelerates as we too age.

While my mountain climbing ambitions are less ambitious, the allure of the White Mountains and other fabled hiking destinations in the foothills returns in autumn like some ancestral memory. For fair weather hikers, once the tapestry of autumn leaves is past peak foliage, so too is another hiking season. Autumn is fleeting. When the sun darts behind a dark gray cloud and the chilly northwest wind blows, it’s not hard to imagine what is coming next.