Yes, New England’s fall foliage is in recession, but we’re not going to mourn the fallen leaves in this newsletter. Because as radiant as amber and auburn tree canopies can be, we’ve officially entered one of the most underrated of all New England seasons. An austere yet enchanting transitional season when the skeletal limbs of frozen arbors offer us a different perspective of New England’s topographic grandeur. The landscape somehow feels more open with most of the leaves gone, and there’s a sense of both sorrow and wonder in seeing the once blooming and verdant land suddenly rendered barren. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and the annual town carnival has packed up and left. When you walk the football field where all the rides and midway games were erected, you can still spot the impression in the grass from where the Dragon Wagon mini-roller coaster was operating only 24 hours ago. You’re sad, but not too sad. You know in your heart that next year, the Dragon shall return.
This melancholic shoulder season between New England fall and winter is sometimes called Stick Season, due to the abundance of stick-like tree limbs stripped of leaves. I first heard this term used in the Mount Washington valley of New Hampshire, while working as an October-thru-December caretaker at Lonesome Lake Hut back in 2012. This was a change from Massachusetts, where people tend to think of Stick Season as The Suck Zone. (I’m plagiarizing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character from Twister here, but in this case, it really is a sincere form of flattery.) Thinking about the desolate post-foliage weeks as a season implies that there are special sights, smells, sounds, and activities to be savored, before the winter snow blankets the land. Taylor Burt, a backcountry colleague of mine and an avid hiker based in Brattleboro, appreciates the atmospheric qualities of stick season that transform hiking into something heartier yet oddly enchanting. “You get these magical misty mornings before the water bodies freeze,” Burt says. “The shadows are longer and the light is filtered through grey twigs.”
Burt also appreciates the deeper solitude that can come with stick season hiking. In general, New England hiking tends to nosedive in popularity once foliage season is over, and it’s not exactly surprising. The days are increasingly colder and the sun will set much earlier. You’ll want to pack a headlamp if there’s any possibility of your hike extending beyond 4pm. (You should probably just bring one regardless, the same way you’d bring a compass or first aid kit on any hike.) Stick season is like a chillier version of the “magic hour” that you experience when hiking in summer and fall—that period of softening, fading sunlight which reminds you that it’s time to head home. Stick season is like the magic hour, but for the greater part of a day. And again, it’s colder.
But when you’re a hiker living in New England year-round, you can’t help but allow stick season to ingratiate itself with you. Because really, what other choice do you have?
It wasn’t until I turned 30 when I began to appreciate the charm of stick season, and it was basically the result of necessity. I was scrambling to finish the 78 trails in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont that I profiled for Moon New England Hiking, before the snow arrived. October had been jam-packed with additional nest-padding magazine assignments that required travel to places like Reno and Jacksonville. I’d go off to one of these toastier locales, and then return to New England, hit the road, and document as many hikes left on my roster as I could. When mid-November arrived, I still had to hike two mountains on the Maine coast—Ragged Mountain and Mount Megunticook.
I drove north on I-95 under a sky that brought to mind a bucketful of charcoal ash. The temperature gauge on my car kept dropping as I passed Kittery, Portland, Brunswick, and other Maine destinations. By the time I hit the Midcoast region, it was 40 degrees. With a higher likelihood of rain the next day, I hit Ragged Mountain first, given that it was the longer hike. Ragged Mountain is a noble-looking hump of a mountain overlooking the village of Camden, and the trail I chose for reaching the summit—the Georges Highland Path—is part of a 50 mile network of low-impact footpaths in Midcoast Maine, made possibly by local landowners allowing the trails to be built on their property. (Almost all of Maine’s land is privately owned, which I find kind of horrifying.) I arrived at the tiny trailhead parking lot at 2pm and found it completely deserted. Convenient, but also, ominous.
And yet, as soon as I stepped into the knolly forest beneath Ragged Mountain, I felt a sense of warmth overtaking me, and not just because I was wearing a Michelin Man style configuration of thermal tops under my jacket. Stripped of most vegetation, the woods here had been pared down to their most elemental foundations. It was like walking through a softly lit cathedral of hemlock and conifer trunks, but it wasn’t just the trees that delighted me. There were ancient stone walls, half-submerged in forest detritus. A powerful brook that I crossed several times still bubbled away with water that must have been frigid but looked rather resplendent, swirling through the frozen woodland. Occasionally, through the trees, I’d glimpse a far-off house with the lights turned on. I could smell woodsmoke. I was hiking fast, mindful of the fading light, but by the time the trail began slabbing steeply up the side of Ragged Mountain, I realized that I was enjoying this hike much more than I had anticipated while driving up here.
Then I broke through the treeline and saw this.
Stick season is magical throughout New England, but it’s really something along the Maine coast. It allows you to take in more of the landscape that surrounds you, and given how the Maine coast offers a unique ménage à trois of woods, mountains, and the ocean…I can’t think of a more quietly epic time to wheeze your way up the side of a big wooded hill or peak near the coast and gaze out at the country below. The final leg of my hike up Ragged Mountain was an alternation of rock hopping and stopping to go, “Shit…” and admire the views of Penobscot Bay. The summit, which contains a large radio tower, was less remarkable than the ridge walk that delivers you there.
Of course, part of what makes stick season hiking fun is the promise that when it’s over, you’ll be retiring to a warm, cozy abode where you can replenish your energy with plenty of calories: ideally the goopier kind. Upon returning to the Ragged Mountain trailhead at dusk, I hightailed it for the town of Belfast, where an Airbnb cabin with a heating system and a shower with robust water pressure awaited me. I ate dinner at an Italian restaurant in town, lowering handmade spaghetti with bolognese sauce into my gullet like it was feeding time at Sea World. Stick season hiking is a license for indulgence, more so than summer or fall hiking, and that’s part of why I’ve embraced it.
But still, there’s something almost spiritual about hiking at a time when you’re caught between mourning the beauty of seasons past and knowing that more of them will happen. The power of this transitional moment is something which has been depicted in movies and literature. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the landscape that Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are essentially thru-hiking across as they get closer to the barrier mountains of Mordor is likened to barren woodlands. Peter Jackson adhered to this when making the cinematic adaptation of the books and you’ll notice that during the scenes when the Hobbits are closing in on Mordor, it kind of looks like they’ve walked right into a version of stick season. There’s an atmosphere of dread here, knowing that the maze of sticks and twigs will eventually take them into a fiery hellscape of jagged, obsidian mountains that crawl with Orcs. But there are glimmers of beauty and hope, as demonstrated in this scene from the extended edition of The Return of the King.
The “crown” of flowers which has grown around the disembodied statue head hints at better times ahead for the free peoples of Middle Earth. But what we can appreciate better than Frodo and Sam, as viewers of their story, is the melancholia that precedes the arrival of better times. If nothing else, this is a feeling that speaks to something vital within ourselves: something to be held and nurtured. And when it comes to the feelings that stick season might evoke, I’d like to finish with one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost, My November Guest (and afterward, some stick season hiking tips.)
My sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.
A FEW OF MY FAVORITE STICK SEASON HIKES…
Ragged Mountain (Rockport, ME)
Distance: 4.4 miles out-and-back
Elevation gain: 1,085 feet
Click here for trail directions
The Cascades (Worcester, MA)
Distance: 1.4 miles loop
Elevation gain: 187 feet
Click here for trail directions
Skatutakee and Thumb Mountains (Hancock, NH)
Distance: 4.9 miles loop
Elevation gain: 859 feet
Click here for trail directions
Chatfield Hollow State Park (Killingworth, CT)
Distance: 3.4 miles loop
Elevation gain: 265 feet
Click here for trail directions
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I had meant to use this recent story as the coda to last week’s Vermont waterfall crawl issue, but the newsletter’s text and photo size limit necessitated bumping it to this week’s issue instead. In case you haven’t heard this yet, five hikers in British Columbia saved two men who fell into a waterfall pool by using their Sikh turbans to create a rescue rope. The distressed hikers were saved from the pool, thanks to the quick thinking, ingenuity, and solidarity displayed by the hikers. I’ve said it before and I’ll gladly choose it as my hill to die on—hiking isn’t an act of rugged individualism. It’s a sport that’s ultimately built on a community of hikers being cool to one another, and this story is one of many that exemplifies that baseline consideration and empathy.
In Boston, something very exciting happened this week. We elected Michelle Wu as our new mayor. Much of her campaign was built around a very detailed Green New Deal framework for rendering Boston a carbon-neutral city and using the climate crisis as a catalyst for equity policies like building cooperatively owned housing, extending our public transit system, and planting more trees in neighborhoods where the racist urban renewal policies of the postwar years created “heat islands:” vegetation-less spaces where the concrete absorbs and re-emits sunlight on hot days, creating very uncomfortable and even dangerous heat conditions for residents. Forests and water bodies don’t re-emit heat in the same way. Hence their importance for cities. I wrote about the implications of Wu’s win this week in my first story for The New Republic.
Also, I have now seen Dune twice, and given that this newsletter is about the beauty of landscapes—rural, urban, or just plain weird—I implore anyone interested to see Dune on the largest cinema screen possible, in a theater with a great sound system. I can’t really decide whether the visuals or the sonic design of Dune steal the show. But in tandem, they make for one of the most absorbing cinematic experiences I’ve had in years. Part of this is because the visual pacing of Dune is much more meditative than most sci-fi epics. The camera glides patiently. It lingers. The score is deafening but slow and moody. If you saw Denis Villeneuve’s earlier sci-fi films like Arrival or Blade Runner 2049, then you’ll recognize this approach. It works beautifully in Dune. At one point, while clearing a frog in my throat, I felt like I was coughing up sands of Arrakis. Or possibly some spice.