Searching for Gold
I was born an April baby, but something must have happened when I hit the six-month mark. On a crisp, October day, someone popped me into a pile of fallen leaves. Or, I rode in my older brother’s arms in the backseat of our blue Buick, through the hills of Appalachia, mesmerized by yellows, oranges, and reds. Now that I’m all grown up, I’m not a fan of pumpkin spice lattes, but apple cider is my beverage of choice. I’m a fall girl and always have been. Goldenrod, rust, taupe, and smoky green heathers that reflect the landscape in autumn are the colors that comfort me. Reds that veer toward the deep pinks of spawning salmon and red-twig dogwood are the whiskey glaze on the apple cake.
The scents of autumn are the ones I prefer: dried sweetgrass, the sharp prick of sage, fermenting blackberries on the vine, apples. Hiking through the larch forests blanketing the canyons surrounding Missoula, Montana, my home for five years, mesmerized me. And it’s my pup’s favorite place in the world.
In search of the elusive pockets of gold, I made the drive to the former mining town of Garnet, Montana, now billed as a “ghost town.” I spent the long, lonely day of Halloween there, completely alone. I made no acquaintances, ghostly or corporeal, but I found my gold.
During the brief summer of 2017 — brief because I spent most of it lying on my couch healing from a hip injury — I thirsted for color, adventure, peace, and good health. But nature has always been my go-to for grounding, for returning to my essential self. So, on a Friday I’ll never forget, I took off for parts unknown, exploring a network of gravel roads leading west along Gold Creek. I whiled away the day, creekside, watching the dog wander and sniff, chase chipmunks, and laze in the mid-September sun. And from that day arose, in my mind, a fully formed short story and a play, both featuring a gruff, nature-attuned, middle-aged woman who found solace in the wilds of Montana. That’s not so far off the mark. As the sun began its slow descent over the mountains, I found everything I was looking for.
In 2019, I made migrated south like the Sandhill Cranes, from the lush forests and prairies of northwest Montana to New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. I wanted warmer winters, with an extended hiking season, and I found what I was looking for. My area of northern New Mexico gets a full month or more of each swing season, the best time for long hikes in mild weather. In March and April, you’ll find me hiking the foothills. May and June, I’ll move a thousand feet up, following the line of melting snow. But in autumn, the vistas are endless and varied, keeping me on the go until the first snowfall, and miles of gold light the path, wherever I choose to go.
Last year, the first flakes fell on Thanksgiving. This year, they’re predicted to fall a month earlier, on a random Tuesday in late October — a boon for the firefighters battling catastrophic blazes throughout the Rocky Mountains.
But if it’s really gold I’m looking for, I can hop in my car and drive a mile east to the broad swath of glowing cottonwoods that border the Rio Grande. “The Bosque” is magical at any time of the year, but in autumn, it’s incandescent. And beneath the hidden canopy of golden leaves, asters and sunflowers burst forth in a final attempt to sow their seeds in the thick duff of fallen leaves.
One fine night, when the moon is full, my friends and I car-camp in the Jemez with all of our dogs, talking late into the night, until we run out of firewood. It’s cold enough to drive us into our sleeping bags, where we huddle with our dogs for warmth. But in the morning, there is plenty of light and color in the dark woods, russets and reds mostly. The turning approaches, brought on by colder temperatures, although the skies above remain heartbreaking blue.
At last, autumn begins its final turn to winter. But I’m not ready to toss my boots into the closet — there is so much more to see. The foothills beckon, the footing dry and firm, the air crisp and cool. Not a whisper of wind. And there are dogs needing exercise.
We head to the Manzanitas, scarcely more than a thousand feet above the valley floor, but an entirely different landscape. I’m immersed in an endless pinon-juniper forest that surely must span a continent, it is so vast to the eye. A multitude of jays and crows battle for the fat-rich pine nuts, and on the ground, a few insects appear, their movements slowed by the cold.
The few deciduous trees have already lost their leaves. It’s the shrubs and grasses that call my name: the banana-yellow fruits of the cholla cactus, the elfin sculptures of seedheads.
The dog is weary and foot-sore, and the veterinarian tells me he can no longer be a “weekend warrior.” He is still a warrior in his heart — but I have to accept that he is in the autumn of his life. Still, he wants to be with me every step of the way, as he has been for ten long years. I’ll just watch him carefully, take the world at his pace. I’ll feed him supplements and hand-cooked mixtures of his favorite foods. We’ll both grow old, together.
Author’s Note: All photos taken with a Canon Point-and-Shoot 35-mm digital camera. I think it’s about 20 pixels. Blue and gold are my favorite colors, and there is no shortage of them in New Mexico, in any season.
I like to play with light, usually with the sun behind me. But sometimes I like to pick up some sidelight and occasionally, some backlight. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
New Mexico is beautiful: Please come to explore its majestic landscape and spend lots of money (we’re a poor state); but if you plan to stay, keep in mind that water is a limited resource, and every year, summers are getting hotter.