Hiking Into Fall's Golden Light
Into the mountains in search of the last bright rays of autumn
One day in October every year, I leave my home valley and make a pilgrimage up into Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. I am not seeking enlightenment, exactly. I am seeking simply light.
My birthday falls on Oct. 10, long enough past the fall equinox that the ever-growing darkness of autumn can no longer be denied. Every day the sun rises later from behind the valley’s eastern wall, and every day it drops sooner behind the black ridges to the west. During the lengthening nights, summer’s stored-up heat leaves the valley and radiates toward the stars, which glitter ever more brightly. Our tawny-shouldered hills shiver in the morning breeze, and the day always comes when the sky is filled with vultures, rising up on the last weakened thermals until they reach the north wind that carries them away to California, summer’s ragged soldiers in full retreat.
Soon, I know, will come the rain, and then the snow. Soon, the serious dark. This end of nature’s year is also the end of my own—another birthday, another milestone of my mortality. In the bleak gray October dawn, it can be hard to take.
At the same time, I enjoy melancholy, and autumn is my favorite season. Yet, before I embrace that dark, I need one day of perfect light, light reflected off a forest of brilliant autumn leaves. This can’t be found in my town, where the dominant hardwoods are oaks, whose leaves turn, at best, a somber orange-brown, and where the blazing color of the occasional non-native sugar maple or box elder seems garish and forced. So on a weekend near my birthday, I point my battered Subaru up the Crater Lake Highway, higher and higher, past the last town, past the last dam, into the towering, almost black conifer forests, where the Rogue River runs cold.
For about 50 weeks of the year, this great mountain forest of Douglas-fir, hemlock and pine is dark green, a place of shadows, large silences and puritanical sobriety. But sometime in October, all is changed, and the huge trees seem to step back as the humble hazels and maples at their feet begin to glow, and glow brighter, and finally blaze with the intimate incandescence of candle flame, until the mountains are filled with a light unlike any other—warming, piercing, purifying and breathtaking. This is the light I come to seek.
A trail runs along the river here, and this is the route of my pilgrimage. A hundred feet back into the forest, the sun-loving little hardwoods are shaded out, surrendering the spongy ground to mushrooms and deep-forest herbs like vanilla-leaf and pipsissewa. There, the dark conifers remain in shadow. But in this brief season, they merely provide a black backdrop to the brilliance of the hazelnuts and vine maples that line the riverbanks, spreading their leaves in the sun that fed them all summer long, and now illuminates their dying glory.
The hazelnuts grow in dense thickets, and are so beloved by the squirrels that in all my years of hiking through their groves, I have only found a handful of their nuts. It is a mystery how they replace themselves. Their autumn leaves are delicate, first turning a subtle yellow-green, and at their peak attaining a yellow whose translucent pale purity rinses the air with cleansing light.
Vine maples are far more flamboyant. Even as they begin to turn, their star-shaped leaves glow a deep golden yellow, and with the advance of frosty nights, they flame into scarlet, a color the hazels never dare to attempt. The brightest maples always seem to be at the water’s edge, where their colors are stirred by the restless river, a fluid rainbow carried away past the towering conifers, which appear to lean forward for a better look, but say nothing.
I walk through these wonders wide-eyed, and as I breathe, I feel nourished by the light, literally fed until my stomach grows full, electrified until I tingle to my fingertips. This magic never fails, a gift of nature as reliable as the turning of the earth itself. After my day in the forest of light, I return homeward strengthened and prepared: ready for another year, ready for winter, ready for the night.
Pepper Trail is a biologist and writer based in Ashland, Oregon.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.