Fall, one of my favorite times of year, used to come earlier when I was a kid. Here’s how I judge it: We were hiking with the Boy Scouts somewhere in central Missouri. The day was overcast and drizzly. Stair steps of roots and rocks lead the way up a large hill. I was the fattest kid in the troop and found keeping up with the others beyond my physical limits.
I stumbled and tripped up the hill, doing the best I could. A stitch in my side doubled me over and made me stop a moment. I looked at the ground in front of me. There on a wet stone lay a fall-red sweet gum leaf. It was in the middle of the trail, all by itself. I stared at that leaf and suddenly the labor, lack of breath, and the ache in my legs abated a minute. As I recovered, I bent over and picked up the leaf and examined it closely. It was the prettiest thing I think I ever saw to that moment in my life. I can still see it today.
What happened to me on the rest of the hike is lost in the halls of memory. I don’t remember what we were doing before we mounted that hill. Were we on a day hike, a Saturday off in the woods? Or were we on an overnight and taking a hike before we went back to camp? It seems that the second was most likely. I think we were on a retreat at one or another of the monasteries that dot Missouri, one of those Catholic events that our troop did from time to time.
The one thing I remember very clearly was that it was October 8. The trees were either in full color or on their way to losing all their leaves. I favor dark, overcast days over sunny, cheerful ones. The day we hiked with the scouts, I felt relieved that the clouds covered the sun. Hiking on a fall day in full sun depressed me even then.
I have judged the arrival of all autumns since that hike by the date October 8. When we start getting close to that date, I take careful note of the state of the trees in the neighborhood. I notice the trees along the interstate. When I drive to Johnson County Community College, where I teach American History and Western Civilization, a long curving bridge rolls me down from U.S. 69 Highway down to the entrance ramp to I-435. For a few seconds, I get a sweeping view of the forest that leads up a long hill the college. In the fall, the oaks and hickories there give me a good idea of the season’s advance.
Every year, particularly the last seven or eight, October 8 produced signs that weren’t good for a person like me who thrives in the declining days of the year. The sun starts late and sets early. I am happiest and most easy going when its dark the longest. My mood only gets better as we reach toward the winter solstice.
But there’s more than the length of the day that plays into my overall feeling of well-being, as fall is more than just the darkness that frames the day. One of the benefits of living in the Midwest, until recently, at least, is the turn of four seasons. October 8 used to mark autumn. Anymore, it shows me that we have another three weeks before the leaves really change and begin to cascade off the deciduous trees.
This year, the fall has been warm. The days give over over to pleasant, jacketless weather. The stars shine brightly above but disappointment fills the air. I long for cold and damp. I want the windy, haunted nights that scoot up the alleys like ghosts and remind us that the warm insides of our houses wait for us.
Back when Sydney was a little girl and I was a single dad, we used to go camping at Wallace State Park north of here. The campground sits in the middle of the forest. I remember one fall distinctly. We set our tent at a site remote from the others, though we were about the only people in the place. We woke to frosty cold. The trees had shed most of their leaves, and those that hadn’t would surely do so after that night. Sydney had to use the bathroom but we had no warm clothes for her. All I had was my woolen German army pants. We slid her into them and rolled the legs all the way up past her ankles. She had to hold them up at the waist. I can still see her walking away from the tent in those pants. The morning light drenched her in gold.
We used to take nature walks at Watkins Mill State Park, also north of here but a little closer. The land used to belong to local textile king, Moses Watkins. He kept his employees on the grounds and provided them with an octagonal brick school house and small church that served not only the employees but farmers in the surrounding area. The trail led past the church and the school and wound through the upland prairie and down into the forest.
When the time was right, when the leaves were at their most colorful, we took long days and wandered the trails at the park. She walked ahead of me, stopping every now and then to look at a frog or a leaf. It was then that I took in the world around us. The wind set gently on the tall grass and parted the leaves of the trees for a second.
They are images that I hold in my head for those moments when I set into melancholy, thinking about the passage of time and the things I might have done differently. If I had known the fleeting nature of our experiences of those days, I would have tried to remember more.
Nick and I went for a walk at the park where Sydney and I used to go. As we made our way past the school and the church, I thought of the lateness of the season. It was warm, not like an autumn should be. I wanted it to be jacket-and-hat cold. But a walk in the woods with my son was good enough for the day. He, like Syd, walked in front of me. He, too, stopped to look at leaves and frogs. He found a long, straight stick to walk with, like Sydney had so many times before.
I thought of them and of that kid who spied the most beautiful leaf he’d ever seen in his life. It seemed only yesterday that we had fall in October. It reminded me that my time will be up soon. I only have 16 good years left until I’m 70. I can think back 16 years to Sydney and I walking at Watkins Mill. That’s not a lot of time. Not anymore.
I’m not normally given to nostalgia, but I want a hard freeze. I dream of a good, deep winter where we turtle into our blankets and watch the sun dribble through the clouds. Night. Yes, night. I look forward to that the most.