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With fall splendor, seeing is believing

John Pepin

“Somewhere along the high road, the air began to turn cold,” — Bob Seger

Riding out over the gray gravel road, the plain laid out in front of me in all its spectacular sweeping autumn beauty.

The October road was as straight as a witch’s broomstick, dipping lower and lower as it narrowed, reaching into the distance toward a thin, green strip of jack pine trees that eventually crossed the scene.

Above this, before the open sky, was a layer of colored-leaf countryside that shone back from that far away as mottled lavender, ala purple mountains majesty.

The powder and robin’s-egg blue sky above was streaked with high and icy wisps of cirrus clouds and lower, mashed-potato duffs of white cumulus.

This was a day like that all over — nature’s contrasts seemed to find me everywhere; she wrote them on my heart and in my head.

On one side of the road, the trees screamed wildly in sacred red, royal gold and pumpkin-candy orange. The colors were so bright all around me, it was dizzying.

I felt like I was inside a kaleidoscope. Even a tiny shift in the view changed by the wind moving a branch here or there, or the turning of a single leaf or two, was startling and stunning all at once.

I found myself taking deep breaths and sighing — floating inside.

At the top of a rocky rise, I thought about how impossible it would be to try to explain to someone from another world — or parts of our own country — what the dramatic pageantry of fall color change is all about.

You need to experience it to know — like seeing the northern lights.

Even photographs can’t capture it.

With pictures there are no warm, sweet autumn aromas, the crackling and happy sound of crunching leaves, the clean air to inhale or the tender feelings churned up inside of me as I walk.

No, beautiful autumn photographs work their magic best as reminders — mementos or souvenirs of our first-hand experiences, now embedded in every fall photo we see.

And, of course, it’s not just the trees that turn.

Everything from the tiny blueberry bushes and the now copper and bronze curled bracken ferns to the withered and faint grasses lining and splitting the two-track roads are part of the picture, as are the deep, soft blonde masses of marsh mosses and the yellowed stalks and browned seed pods of summer flowers.

For me, autumn’s vibrant extravaganza is every bit as dramatic as the glory of spring. The variability from place to place adds to the mystery and surprise.

Under a string of highline wires, opposite where the colors had been so intense and kaleidoscopic, winds, likely from recent rainstorms, had stripped the trees of their bright and showy kimonos, leaving instead only bare, shivering branches.

Deep, muddy water was puddled over the gravel road.

Not that far away, the trees growing alongside the banks of one of the big rivers showed colors that were still mostly green, with some yellows splashed in here and there. Yet the leaves of one black-barked maple, that was bowing over the dark water, glowed in a deep fire orange like a burning ember.

As I moved up the coast, I watched the snapping cold wind swirl circles across the top of the big lake, stirring up the water. Amber tannin-filled splashes slipped smoothly over the rocks in creeks — bubbling and tumbling uncharacteristically fast and eager for this time of year.

A bald eagle turned into the sunlight in the clear blue sky. It’s odd to me that we attach so much status and significance to these majestic creatures and they fly around all day never knowing it.

In one place, I parked along the highway and hiked up a small hill into the woods.

I clicked my camera as I walked.

This was a place where nature and humankind had tangled.

Not far into the shade of the trees, I was suddenly standing in front of a towering concrete skeleton of what once had been part of a mighty stamp mill used to help process copper.

At one time, this place had been a picture of prosperity, a workhorse of industry.

Now, even the ghosts are gone.

Tremendous arches that once held windows and doors were gaping wide.

The stained and crumbling concrete was covered in blue, red, orange and green graffiti. Kids have probably been coming here for decades — it’s one of those unlikely places that attract them.

One painted drawing showed a brick pyramid — like the one on the back of a dollar bill — with an all-seeing open eye. Below the eye was painted “Trust” in orange, crossed through in red.

Another sketch on the wall showed a frowning face with Xs for eyes. There was also an upside-down cross and all kinds of seemingly random letters.

From where I stood, I could see clear through the building to the back window opening, which held an image quite different from what I had been seeing here.

The trunk of a relatively young and growing white birch tree split the space between the frame in half. Green-leafed maple trees had sprouted up beneath the branches of one big tree whose trunk was also visible. A hillside just outside the window was scattered with colored leaves. Boulders were clothed in lush moss.

This was perhaps the most striking contrast of the day.

The picture I was seeing through this back window looked as though someone had centered and hung a big nature photograph on the back wall — surrounded by graffiti.

The air around me was filled with squawking blue jays and the simple chipping sound of yellow-rumped warblers. Humans had built this place and left. Nature was now reclaiming it.

Trees have grown up close to the building, some taller than the roof.

A year or so ago, incredible rainstorms — those not seen in a millennium — sent wild floodwaters roaring and rumbling from the steep hills above, down through portions of the ruins here. Perhaps nature is impatient to reclaim this place.

Meanwhile, the cars on the highway, with license plates from all over the place, keep whirring past. If you didn’t know this place was here, you wouldn’t see it.

On another trail not far off the shoreline, I noticed a group of a half-dozen acorns fallen from a tree. They looked like green-and-white Weebles strangely situated in almost a circle.

It looked to me like they were discussing something important — perhaps their next move now that they had happened to land on trail gravel, rather than fertile soil.

Nearby, a rake and an old garden spade leaned up against an apple tree. The ground was covered with apples. The farmer called home long ago.

At a wide windswept place on the landscape I could see fall’s procession had proceeded much farther along than at some of the other places I had been today. It was unnerving to see almost all the trees — and many of the low bushes — bare, crouched and standing stiff, waiting for winter’s blows.

With the temperature sliding back down the scale, I watched the road for deer, heading closer to town. It wasn’t that long before my high-beam lights splashed across the house as I turned into the driveway.

Shutting the car door, the night air was cold.

The big dipper hung low above the trees. I listened as closely as I could, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath or two, soaking in the silence at the front doorstep.

Nighttime had followed me home — we both had arrived.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.