The Descent of Autumn

Fall’s magic starts with brilliant colors but doesn’t end there.

By Richard Grant  Photographed by Amy Wilton

There will come a morning — it might be any day now — when stepping out your door will feel like passing bodily through the looking glass. The world around you will seem new and strange: sunlight sharper, colors richer, shadows more mysterious. The breeze will carry unaccustomed scents. Silence will hang like a scrim, ready to part at the slightest disturbance.

Oh, and yes: the leaves will be changing color. But you were expecting that. So much else about autumn catches you — catches all of us — by surprise.

I’ve heard many Mainers say that fall is their favorite season. And I’ve habitually agreed, yes, it’s mine, too — but the “why” of it remains just out of my rational grasp. Autumn rolls in each year more or less on schedule, especially as compared to its opposite number, spring, whose exact beginning is generally subject to dispute. Yet it manages to amaze us every time. We feel as though these exact colors, this particular quality of light, this precarious balance of bracing air and caressing sunshine must surely be without precedent. If we could, we’d grab it and jam it in a bottle to imbibe as a tonic during, say, the Great Despond of mid-November. For we know this precious store of beautiful days can’t last forever. The best we can hope for is long enough to tide us over till next year.

And so we throw ourselves outdoors, into the midst of it. If we are young enough, we roll around ecstatically in piles of fallen leaves, and past that enviable age, the activity scale is adjustable. We may go hiking. Or maybe boating: a late, lazy paddle on the old lake is a wonderful thing. We may be happy to drive around, hunting for photo ops. Or simply to settle into an Adirondack chair and try to distill the moment into memory.

In my neck of Maine — the midcoast, along the Rockland-to-Belfast axis — we are lucky enough to have the ocean on one side and a range of low mountains called the Camden Hills on the other, with several lakes and ponds scattered not far inland. Here you can experience autumn in most of its varied guises just by choosing the right vantage point and turning in place. If the vista on the left fails to take your breath away, you might like this one on the right. You might try looking up — the sky often takes on an almost liquid tone of blue — or, if your altitude is sufficient, looking down.

An ordinary ski lift will serve you well here, and happily we’ve got one, at a public resort called the Camden Snow Bowl. Not many small towns have got their own skiing slopes, I imagine, but Camden is one of them, and in their ingenuity the natives have contrived year-round uses for the place. Autumn may be the nicest time of all to find yourself suspended between heaven and earth, with the Maine woods at your back, Mount Battie soaring in its modest way before you, Penobscot Bay on the horizon, and Hosmer Pond, a sixty-five-acre beauty, virtually at your feet.

The Snow Bowl is only the most visible part of the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area, a Maine treasure that includes trails for hiking and biking, tennis courts, ball fields, and a toboggan chute. The view from the thirteen-hundred-foot summit, as the park’s website notes, is “quite unlike any other in the East.” Most of the sprawling grounds have been preserved in their natural state, and the immediate surroundings might justly be termed unspoiled. Neighboring farms produce maple syrup at the opposite end of the calendar, and the countryside, should you care to venture away from the coast, is a beautiful mix of open fields and native woodland, lightly and tastefully developed.

I’ve lived in this area through about twenty-five autumns now, and the magic has not diminished. If anything, it has grown stronger. I’ll sidestep the lure of some ridiculous analogy (like a fine wine whose nuances and complexities blah blah) and just repeat that there’s more to autumn in Maine than pretty leaves. Much, much more. You don’t have to seek it out. Just step outside, and it becomes part of you.

Richard Grant is a Down East contributing editor and novelist residing in Lincolnville. His most recent book is Another Green World.