When I lived at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, N.M., the autumn gold of the cottonwoods that lined the arroyos and creeks could turn an atheist into a believer.
One year, I went with two friends into the Rockies in late October. At the New Mexico-Colorado border, the road climbed into the mountains, and the aspen, gold as pennies, left blazing clusters across the mountains as if an artist had swathed it with his brush.
We stopped for lunch in a rustic cafe along the Rio Grande River. From our window-side table, we stared at the panorama of color and listened to the bubbling of the river.
After lunch, we snaked north, twisting around to Creede, a tiny mountain town slivered in between towering peaks. Clouds clumped overhead, and temperatures plummeted, so I found a fleece jacket in a Creede shop for just $20. On we went, past the remnants of an old mine littered with tailings, and then up and up and up until we were high above the aspen. Far below, the cottonwoods nestled beside the river. We parked and stared in silence.
We spent that night in a little bed and breakfast in Lake City that was set to close for the season the next weekend. The next morning, headed up Slumgullion Pass at 11,530 feet, and stopped to gaze again at color-dappled mountains against that blue blue sky.
Fall’s dwindling daylight is a cue for animals, too. In October 2009, I was camping in Rocky Mountain National Park when a herd of elk collected outside my tent and bugled all night. As temperatures plunged to 25 degrees, I lay awake in my fleece-lined sleeping bag listening to those elk and quaking from the cold like the aspen leaves on the mountainside. Even the water in my water bottle froze.