Moon of the Yellowing Leaves

Some days assume an ethereal quality during the living, and October 1 was just such a day. In search of fall colors, my husband and I traveled to Mueller State Park in neighboring Teller County, about 30 miles (48 Km) west of Colorado Springs. 9 o’clock in the morning found the thermometer flirting with a refreshing 39 degrees F (4 degrees C), inducing us to don an extra layer. At nearly 9,000 feet (2.700 meters), our favorite aspen trees were busy with their annual endeavor of turning into gold.

This year’s haphazard weather, characterized by searing heat and parching drought, made it difficult for experts to forecast the pinnacle of this avidly anticipated autumn spectacle. And while a fraction of the trees was still green and another had already shed its leaves, plenty of aspens were in the midst of their miraculous transformation, delighting us not only with cheering sunshine hues, but also with a euphonious symphony of rustling foliage, in addition to a pleasing choreography of pirouetting leaves on their way to converting into a crunchy, crispy carpet. The sky, after being obscured by haze from wildfires repeatedly in the preceding months, was nearly as blue as is its wont, and the sun raised the temperature to a very-comfortable-at-this-altitude 60 degrees (15 C) .

Enchanted with what we found, we scrapped our plans to return to Colorado Springs via a loop road, which, on account of being gravel, would have taken us many hours to drive. Instead, we hiked a nearly 7-mile loop that undulated through expansive meadows, scattered strands of trees, and dense forests. We took our time enjoying the vistas and the balminess of the sun’s rays, but also the intermittent breezes hinting at harsher times to come. Next to a verdant pond in an otherwise desiccated meadow we sat cross-legged and savored our lunch, with squirrels chattering and birds calling.

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Ending the afternoon at a picnic table with coffee and pumpkin muffins, we were accosted by the curious, always-hungry, and at-times-brazen avians aptly known as camp robbers—the irresistible Canada Jays. When the crumbs that drop from visitors’ picnics aren’t sufficiently sating, they will help themselves to whatever edibles aren’t nailed down.

As the westering sun dappled the light, warmed our aging bones, and made us appreciate the simple pleasures of the moment, from high in the sky came a vociferous reminder of the passing of the seasons. Craning our necks, we espied a flock of migrating Sandhill Cranes on their way south. In tandem with our earlier experiences, they uplifted our souls with another token of nature’s comforting, recurring cycles in otherwise disturbing, unsettled times.

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PS: Thanks to my husband for coming up with this post’s title. It was inspired by author Mari Sandoz, whose books include descriptive names for the different months used by the American Indian tribes she wrote about. I have introduced her in a previous post.

PPS: Mueller State Park was also the topic of another previous post.

Colorado’s Most Precious Gold

Whereas Colorado might not paint much in autumnal reds and clarets, it is a masterful artist when it comes to applying golden brush strokes. Several trees belonging to the willow family grow exceedingly well in our Rocky Mountain state. Plains and Narrow-Leaf Cottonwoods thrive at slightly lower elevations and are no less gorgeous or colorful than their cousins of higher realms—aspen trees—but the latter tend to get most of the glory. And glorious they are, regardless of whether a gauzy green graces their limbs in springtime, or a palette of warmer hues during the fall, as if they were reflecting the different shades of sunshine: much yellow, some orange, little red.

Annually this autumnal pageant is celebrated by Coloradans and out-of-state visitors alike, as though it were nature’s premiere, as well as only performance. Forecasters, based on daylight hours, temperature, and moisture, try to predict the climax of the color change, tourists book hotels weeks, if not months, in advance, aspen lovers make pilgrimages to our montane and subalpine zones to coincide with the most golden glow and brilliant blaze, which usually happens between late September and the middle of October. I am not ashamed to admit that I am one of them, and I am happy to share some of the splendor my eyes have seen.

While you view these photos, visualize the leaves dancing in the wind. The tree’s full name is Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides). The tremors or trembling are a result of flattened petioles that attach at right angles to the leaves, which makes them quake and quiver in the slightest breeze. What wonderful performers are these aspens—concurrently with graceful pirouettes, their foliage creates music equally as pleasing to the ears. It should come as no surprise that I consider aspen trees Colorado’s most precious gold.

Auch wenn Colorado im Herbst nicht viel in Rot und Weinrot malt, ist es ein meisterhafter Künstler, was das Anbringen von goldenen Pinselstrichen angeht. Viele der Familie der Weiden zugehörigen Bäume gedeihen in unserem Rocky Mountain Staat, und auch wenn die in niederen Lagen wachsenden Pappeln nicht weniger spektakulär sind als Espenbäume, ihre Cousinen der höheren Lagen, bekommen letztere mehr Aufmerksamkeit. Und die verdienen sie, egal ob im Frühling, wenn ein zartes Grün ihre Äste überzieht, oder im Herbst, wenn wärmere Farbtöne überwiegen—fast so, als reflektierten sie die verschiedenen Schattierungen der Sonne: Viel Gelb, etwas Orange, wenig Rot.

Alljährlich feiern Bewohner und Besucher Colorados dieses herbstliche Bühnenspiel, als hätte die Natur eine Premiere und zugleich ihre einzige Vorführung. Beobachter versuchen aufgrund von Tageslänge, Temperatur und Feuchtigkeit den Höhepunkt der Verfärbung vorherzusagen, Touristen buchen Hotels Wochen wenn nicht Monate im Voraus, Espenliebhaber machen Wallfarten in montane und subalpine Zonen, um das güldenste Glühen und hellste Leuchten abzupassen. Ich schäme mich nicht einzugestehen, daß auch ich zu ihnen gehöre, und es macht mich froh, etwas von der Pracht, die ich gesehen haben, zu teilen.

Stell Dir beim Anschauen dieser Photos vor, wie die Blätter im Wind tanzen. Der komplette Name des Baumes ist Amerikanische Zitterpappel (Populus tremuloides). Der Tremor ist Resultat der flachen Blattstiele, die im rechten Winkel an den Blättern ansetzen, wodurch sie in der geringsten Brise zittern und zappeln. Welch großartigen Darsteller diese Espen sind—in den Momenten, in denen ihr Blattwerk grazile Pirouetten dreht, macht es zusätzlich wohlklingende Musik. Es dürfte keine Überraschung sein, daß Espen in meinen Augen Colorados wertvollstes Gold repräsentieren.

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Postscriptum:

A succession of storms has since shrunken, separated, and scattered all but the most stubborn foliage, revealing a singular, skeletal kind of arboreal splendor. Incidentally, it has snowed 10+ inches in the course of last week!

Eine Reihe von Herbststürmen hat inzwischen alle bis auf die störrischsten Blätter erfroren, abgerissen und verstreut, und dabei eine bemerkenswerte skelettartige Baumkunst freigelegt. Und nebenbei bemerkt hat es in der letzten Woche mindestens 25 Zentimeter geschneit!

Fall Equinox

In celebration of the first day of autumn, my husband and I make our customary pilgrimage into the mountains. Spoiled by a wide array of choices, we nonetheless seem to gravitate to Pancake Rocks year after year.

As we leave Colorado Springs and wind up Ute Pass, we detect first flecks of orange among the scrub oak, and patches of yellow in the cottonwoods and willows that line Fountain Creek. A waning half moon still lingers in the western sky. Near Woodland Park, we espy small clusters of changing aspen, which become more numerous once we veer from Highway 24 onto 67. When we get out of the car after a 40 mile drive, we enjoy the nibble of fall in the 65 degrees that greet us, especially after our recent heat wave.

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Start of the Pancake Rocks Trail

Our trail starts directly after a collapsed railroad tunnel. We avoid this popular area on weekends, but at the height of the season, multitudes of leaf peepers may abound even during the week, and so it is today. We barely find a parking space, but it turns out that, for once, it is better not to be among the early birds. As we ascend, most other hikers descend, so that we encounter very few people, the closer we are to our goal.

For the first mile, the path to Pancake Rocks is identical to one leading to Horsethief Falls. When it forks, instead of going straight to the falls, half a mile away, we turn right, and commence a two mile trek through a coniferous forest. The higher we climb, the richer the hillsides are with our favorite aspen tree. A breeze emphasizes one of its most prominent features: the quaking, or trembling of its canopy, reflected in its name, Populus tremuloides.

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A carpet of aspen leaves

Where leaves flutter through the air, we walk under showers of golden flakes, and tread on a golden carpet. Their rustling is music to our ears, punctuated by the tweets of small bands of chickadees and juncos, and the chattering of pine squirrels busy with eating and stashing provisions for future use.

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Stacks of pancakes

When we reach our destination whose geologic features reminded someone of their favorite breakfast item, we, too, reward ourselves with food. During our picnic, we relish a window in the clouds and soak up the warmth of the sun from these rocky outcroppings, while we are swept away by the vista. Highway 67 winds through a wide mountain valley bordered by hills entirely covered in trees whose tones range from the dark green of spruce, firs, and pines, to the lighter green, yellow, orange and red aspen foliage can assume, creating a multi-hued tapestry, before the backdrop of the western mountains, and under a cerulean sky dotted with white and gray tufts of cotton.

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View from Pancake Rocks

Welcome, and adieu, beautiful time of year. Your transition leaves us mildly wistful, so we are grateful for your burst of color which will warm and accompany us through winter, until the arrival of another spring.

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Autumn in Colorado