A rosy sunrise at the flats. As the clam digger gazed across the expanse of mud, thousands of clams got it into their little clam heads to squirt … at the same time, creating thousands of clam-juice rainbows. What prompted the big squirt? Must have been some complex combination of natural conditions — atmospheric pressure, the pull of the moon, a shift in the tectonic plates.
“Amazing,” I said.
“Ayuh,” said the digger.
Fast-forward to October in the Whites. I’m walking the Lincoln Woods Trail by the Pemigewasset River. Looking sharp: hiking sticks, boots, cargo pants, water bottle on my hip, Tilley hat tied under my chins. I come upon two hikers: him in shorts and sandals; her in a skirt and flip-flops. They’re confused: “Tell us, please, where do we find the foliage?”
Technically, foliage means leaves. In New Hampshire — the second-most forested state in the country (Maine’s first) — foliage is literally everywhere.
I knew what she meant though. She meant peak color, as seen in drone footage on the internet.
Here, foliage is a season, albeit a short one, like black fly and summer. Foliage, like the big squirt, depends on a complex combination of natural conditions. Online maps and trackers rate color from Not Yet to Past It, with the illusive Peak smack in the middle. When will foliage peak and where? That’s the multimillion-dollar question for tourists and those
who cater to them.
Back to the seashore, where my cousin-in-law summed up his love of diving for scallops this way: “It’s the thrill of the hunt.” Same with foliage: Hunt it, corner it, and — quick — shoot it with your smartphone before it’s gone.
Come to New Hampshire, the cheerleaders say. Soak in the color: Canary yellow, over-ripe pumpkin, ruby red; it’s breathtaking! epic! glorious! an impressionist masterpiece!
But … if spring or summer is too hot, cold, wet, or dry, if the tectonic plates shift awkwardly or the moon is askew, if, come fall, you’re wearing a tank top one day and a parka the next, the quality of the foliage takes a hit. It’s finicky. One windy rainstorm puts the kibosh to the whole business. Just like that.
A lone maple on Northwood Ridge is my bellwether. Some years it’s so red that the looky-loos on Route 4 swerve. The nearby swamp is awful pretty too, when the bushes and brambles reveal their true colors. Truth is, the hunt for peak foliage — like the hunt for those wily scallops — can be both thrilling and frustrating, as droves of peepers bumper to bumper on I-89, I-93, or the funnel through Franconia Notch will attest.
But one bright maple on a knoll, or a kaleidoscope swamp, or a gold-leafed oak arched over a byway, that’s enough for some of us.
As for the confused hikers in Lincoln Woods, might be they arrived a mite early. Or maybe they were looking for a vista and I should have sent them along to the Kancamagus or the Loon Mountain gondola. It’s true, some trees in Lincoln Woods were bare that day, others still green. Instead of canary, pumpkin and ruby (as advertised), the Pemi reflected bronzes, rusts and maroons. Look closely though: See individual leaves, flares of color, dotting the water as it tumbles over sand and stone.
“Tell us, please, where do we find the foliage?” the hikers asked.
“You’re looking at it,” I said.
In retrospect, I should have channeled my inner yankee:
“Tell us, please, where do we find the foliage?”
“Don’t you move a gol-dum inch!”