“Most of all he loved the fall.”– Ernest Hemingway
In its stark simplicity the line above may be one of Hemingway’s best. Paradoxically, the sentence appears in Papa’s worst novel, the bloated turkey Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), a book he should have thrown across the desk and into the wastebasket. Anyway, the line seems to bounce around in my head this time of year, for if you live in the Northern Rockies you know that the best time is the six weeks between Labor Day and the middle of October.
Autumn in the Rockies isn’t an event, and is refreshingly free of commercialization (the Denver Broncos notwithstanding). Unlike New England, the season doesn’t bring busloads of weekend “leaf peepers.” No camera-toting urbanites in khakis and cardigans buying tins of maple syrup and jugs of apple cider in postcard-cute country stores, or sipping herb tea by the fire in pretentiously overpriced Bed and Breakfasts. And though I may get arguments to the contrary, I’ll take a stand and say that you can’t grow pumpkins in Wyoming’s 60-80 day growing season.
Not pumpkins that look like pumpkins anyway. I have a neighbor who’s an enthusiastic backyard vegetable gardener. Every early September, Cody’s eager frosts lay waste to his hard earned bounty. The corn stalks are about three feet tall, with corn smaller than your hand. Most of the tomatoes stay green and are good for nothing but making homemade relish. The pumpkins also finish up green, and usually the size of softballs. As for my neighbor the gardener, well, thank God for the optimists of the world.
Wyoming also lacks New England’s arboreal technicolor splendor. No reds and purples mixed in with a half dozen shades of yellow-orange. None of those bright crimson “swamp maples” that I remember from my Vermont days. Our own cottonwoods are a tarnished gold that require a sunny day to make them shine; our aspens are only a bit brighter. There aren’t many autumn scenes in Wyoming that a modern-day Norman Rockwell would care to paint. True, off season Colorado ski resorts have lately embraced the commercial New England model with horseback riding and mountain biking added to the fireside amenities. Then again, most of those weekend Denver folks originated in places like San Jose and Santa Monica, so we’re not surprised. One wonders what the Colorado equivalent of Vermont maple syrup is: Rocky Mountain Oysters?
In politically incorrect Wyoming, the advent of fall means that a substantial percentage of the population begins to think seriously about killing things (gasp!) to put meat of the table. The “bloodsports” are a routine way of life here. Elk and bighorn sheep hunters are now in the mountains, with deer season coming later; and antelope hunters will soon take to the vast prairie east of Cody. Trout spawn in the fall, and during this time are voracious feeders, so the fishing is excellent.
The weather in which to conduct all this gun-noisy but ecologically necessary mayhem is nearly perfect with cobalt skies and a soft blue haze in the distant mountains. Don’t forget the sunscreen. Though sometimes September Canadian cold fronts bring the first snow to those mountains and a cold rain to Cody, the bad weather is always shortlived, and is the signal for the true Indian Summer of early October. For me, the latter is a time when breathing the very air is akin to a tangy swallow of champagne. Hemingway (who knew a thing or two about champagne) would have loved fall in Wyoming for its similarity to that season familiar to him in Idaho in the 1950s, when he fished Silver Creek near Ketchum in the bracing mornings, or hunted sage grouse or chukars in the hills in the warm afternoons.
In Cody the slouching cottonwoods that line our streets slowly turn to that dull, sunshot gold, the afternoon breeze sizzling the drying leaves with a sound like that of a somnolent rattlesnake. Motel and restaurant marquees announce, “Welcome Hunters.” The summer tourists are mostly gone, and a quieter pace returns. It’s time for locals to visit Yellowstone Park — now an abandoned tourist magnet — before it closes, not to reopen until December and the controversial annual snowmobile season.
As for me, I’ll take the October brown trout spawning run on the South Fork of the Shoshone River, where the blue-braided channels are so clear that small stones are vividly noted in three feet of icy surge. A glance upstream shows a sun-wrought treasure of gold glittering in the riffles. Squadrons of trout face upstream and gracefully weave in the current. They hit the fly not only hungrily, but hard as if performing an act of revenge. Their bodies are a hard slick enamel from all that swimming against the current. The brown-rusty short willows on the gravel bars sway in the breeze. The sun is in my eyes, the roaring river is in my ears, and that first snow remains in the cold blue mountains. A Redtail hawk hovers overhead, slowly drifting upstream not twenty feet above the water.
Sipping coffee from a thermos cup, I watch it while seated on a gray, driftwood log. I smile and think that Papa might agree with me and know that the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is just what the deadbeat ordered.
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