The daisies and yarrow stand in tall brittle bunches in the garden, their cheery summer yellows and whites faded to soft gold and ivory. A few determined petunias still bloom in the flower boxes, purple trumpets on thin leggy stems, covered with a dusting of snow. I keep reminding myself to go out and pick some last bunches of thyme from the field before these sturdy herbs are lost under the snow until spring.
During most of September, the birds that have spent the summer in the woods and fields around our house have been quiet. Then, in the past couple of weeks, the mornings have been filled with the crazy, laughing shrieks of gangs of robins as they careen between the pine trees, chasing after each other. In mid-August we counted five bluebird babies emerging from the nest box beside our house; then, they disappeared. Last week they all showed up, perching on the edge of the big Mexican salsa dish I’ve put out as a birdbath. It’s filled with water and attached to a low stump. Five young bluebirds and two parents took turns flapping in the dish, fluffing themselves into dusty blue puffballs, and tumbling onto the grass.
When fall arrives, do these birds all gather in one place for one last noisy summer party—to eat, socialize, take one more dip in the pool—before heading south for the winter?
These beautiful days of fall have included a lot of comings and goings. Alan’s mother arrived for a week in September, prompting a trip to Denver to enjoy a museum exhibition and a drive to Rocky Mountain National Park to see elk. A childhood friend flew in from New York for his annual fishing trip and spent two days with us. Sitting at an outdoor restaurant in Breckenridge on a warm afternoon, we let our conversation drift between high school reminiscences and jobs, children, the concerns of the middle-aged adults we are now.
A young cousin of mine got married in Vail a few weeks ago, and gangs of friends and family from the East and West Coasts descended upon us in the mountains. It was a raucous few days with groups tumbling in for one event, racing on to the next; rushing up the mountain for a hike, forgetting to put on sunscreen and returning burnt to a crisp. Drinking, laughing, hugging, crying. Now part of the “older generation,” I helped to arrange flowers and took my place on the sidelines; an old family friend opened her house for a brunch on the last day where bedraggled guests gathered one last time, for more laughter, more hugs, before dispersing.
And now, the visitors, like the robins and the bluebirds, have come and gone. In the hush between fall and winter, the days have become mostly quiet and still.
This morning I wander up through the trees and out into the field and as I do, an admonishment comes to mind: here, out West, I have been chided to “stay on the path!” It is frowned upon by the Park Service, one’s observant neighbors, and one’s peers, to wander off the established route for fear that one’s heavy human feet will do damage. Only in certain defined and designated areas are you allowed to “go out of bounds.” Otherwise you stay on the path.
Back East, where I grew up, it was also advised to “stay on the path,” in order to get ahead and be a success. You could bust your ass, you could charge ahead as fast as you liked, you could even take a short hiatus. Just so long as you stayed on the path.
My jeans get caught and then released by tangled thorny stems dangling fat red rose hips, and I pick my way around stumps and through the tall grass. A few gold leaves still cling to the aspen trees. A light snow now lies in patches across the hillside and crunches beneath my boots. I should be working. I should be forging ahead. Instead I find myself at a beautiful spot with a view of the lake. And discover once again that I have veered off the path.
I sit on a log, close my eyes, and turn my face to the sun.
This essay was originally published in the Summit Daily.