The Autumn Leaves

I have just been on a quest for the grail or perhaps on a unicorn hunt. It ended, as such things usually do, with only limited success. Or perhaps this just proves the impossibility of trying to turn back the clock.

Villon famously encapsulated that theme by asking, where are the snows of yesteryear? And the answer is – gone forever. In my case, the aim of the quest was the autumn leaves of yesteryear. They too appear to be gone for good.

Where I live now, springs are glorious, the best season of the year with flora riotously abloom. Where I grew up, in northern Ohio, spring was like the California of “The Lady Is a Tramp” – cold and damp. But fall could knock your eye out with its display of gold and flame – particularly the bright red of the maple trees. The Canadian flag is no exaggeration.

I recall walking as a child through ankle-deep brilliance as showers of fire drifted down from above. In Kindergarten we traced the outlines of the leaves we had gathered and colored them as best we could, but nothing Crayola made matched the reality. Then bonfires were legal and the crimson of the fallen leaves turned to actual fire and sparks arose to meet the stars. Magic.

Autumn leaves here in the Carolinas are perfectly adequate, but more muted – a palette tilted toward russet, rust and copper not the scarlet and gold of my youth. I haven’t seen an Ohio autumn for forty years and have longed to see that blizzard of bright color every year at this season.

On the other hand, I am creaky in too many joints to number and a drive of nine hours each way to see a leaf seemed likely to be hard on my moving parts. And though there might be a nostalgic payoff for me, peak leaf season is unpredictable. What if I got my wife to go on this sentimental journey, which holds no interest for her, and wound up with nothing to show for it? Too horrible to contemplate. Though getting slightly deaf, I would still never hear the end of it.

So I came up with what seemed like a clever compromise. She likes to sit on a cruise ship, as other people do the cooking and cleaning, anticipating a new port’s appearance each morning. Admittedly a cruise in October to New England, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick is not exactly the trip of her extravagant dreams which run more toward Goa and Phuket and other unpronounceable Asian ports of call. But a flight half way around the world would likely require litter bearers to remove my permanently stiffened bones from the plane and burn my corpse on a ghat by the Ganges.

So, we took a brief ride on a ship that allowed me to seek leaves and allowed her to see something new. We ate well at a couple of stops, notably a fabulous and bankrupting meal at Mario Batali’s Babbo, saw the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan, walked in the footsteps of the one-percent of yesteryear in Acadia National Park in Maine and at the Doris Duke mansion in Newport. As to the northern autumnal leaves of yesteryear? No dice. I have photos of a nice maple in Maine and another along Boston’s Fenway and that’s about it.

Were they all a dream? Has the childhood memory of those autumn leaves been so embroidered and exaggerated over the years into something that never was that reality can never match it? Or has climate change altered the nature of nature, have the maple changed their stripes? Or is the unicorn still somewhere in the woods if you are in the right place at the right time and know where to look? I don’t know.

However, I may have stumbled on a clue. I told a guy that I played Trivia with on the boat about the version of the Golden Fleece I was pursuing. He was a retired cop from New Jersey on his 50th cruise with his wife, celebrating their 53rd anniversary. You want good-looking leaves?” he said, when I was gazing disconsolately at drab St. John, New Brunswick. “You shoulda come to Jersey. I’ve got ‘em in my back yard.”

So, knees willing, book me a room next October, in Piscataway.

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