In mid-September a telling chill laces the evening air. In daytime, while hiking, there comes a moment when the breeze takes on an edge that says “autumn.” That moment is both welcome and dreaded. Autumn is my favorite season of the year, but since I don’t backpack during winter I find the promise of colder days unwelcome, unless they find me sitting beside a roaring fireplace with hot chocolate. Still, this is the next spoke in the seasonal wheel ordained since time began, and I find it’s easier going from September until late March if I simply embrace the chilly guest who has come to share my life the next seven months.
One good thing about September and fall hiking is the change in the trail. Less water and muddiness and more firm going underfoot. The colorful pattern made by yellow-gold and burnished red fall leaves is a delight to tread through. The yellow-jackets sometimes found nesting in the trail are the most unpleasant possibility, but I have only been stung once. I learned that, yes, it is possible to run far while carrying a heavy backpack when their venomous sting is felt.
Nights come earlier and fire and wood smoke are welcome. There is a sadness to the loss of the long summer days when I might come trudging into camp as late as eight-thirty in the evening. Days are shorter now, so itineraries focus on making efficient miles and having time to set camp and gather wood. The melancholy also has something to do with the absence of seeing more kindred souls on the trial than I did during warmer months. Again, it’s both welcome to have solitude and be alone while hiking, but lonely not having others to share the joy with.
The September trail song is a bittersweet one. Introspective, but not necessarily despondent. There is more time as I walk to think and assess the lessons learned from the high season just gone. Lessons that cannot be processed in a crowd, teachings that only come when I am the only soul gazing into the blazing campfire alone, staring up through the leafless trees into the naked sky of eternal starlight. A late-arriving hiker at my site would not be welcome during such a holy moment. I hold the hot cup of coffee close to ward the chill from my fingers. I hold the moment itself closer still. A gift of blessing seems to settle down on me from the upward curls of firewood smoke, and I feel a presence not noticed during the daylight or during the busy trail months. Alone, yet not. Wistful, but happy and content. I place another log on the fire, lie back against a supporting tree, and gaze at the moon cresting the horizon. I sip and swallow. I muse and think. No epiphany intrudes on my thoughts, just the comforting awareness of being alone at a specific place and time, in the wild, listening to the song of the barred owls and the whistling of the wind through tall hemlock trees.