Those of us who live in the Adirondacks year round understand a certain wistfulness, a pleasant melancholy, when it comes to autumn. It begins in late summer — that awkward period between flip flops and snow boots, when socks suddenly become a real possibility again, and it captures our attention in earnest when the wild air first fills our nostrils with the full scent of dry leaves.
Who among us has not been struck by the mysterious beauty of a morning mist on the lake, a reflective moment at seeing the ruins of a barn revealed by fallen foliage, or the indulgently doleful recognition of a passing season that the golden leaves awaken in us?
All of these stirrings are triggered by the seasonal signposts that we notice along the way, little omens of the coming fall and the inevitable moment of realization that autumn, in all its splendor, has arrived.
Here then, without further ado, is a list of the signs that tell me fall is on the way, and, once it has arrived, those quirky rituals that I perform to satiate my own beautiful sadness at the passing of a season.
Harbingers of the fall — or, uh oh...
Labor day has come and gone, there you are in the back yard, in your crocs and your shorts, rockin' your Hawaiian shirt — enjoying the sun and an adult beverage. It's a hot beautiful day, then you look down and “oh fudge!” It's one of those fuzzy things! Fuzzy bears, fuzzy wuzzys, wooly bears — everybody's got a different name for them, but whatever you call them you swear that if they never showed up summer would keep going on forever. Their arrival is the first omen of fall. That's why we take it so hard when we see them. It's like a bad omen, or bumping into your dentist at the market — we're just not ready to deal with that mess. They might as well be humping along with a tiny snow shovel over their fuzzy little shoulder for Pete's sake.
Of course, after that first abrupt announcement that fall is here, there is a willingness to accept the situation and look for all the little things to follow. You start noticing the other signs, welcome harbingers of things to come...like apples...and pumpkins.
We are fortunate to live in the land of apple trees. Under-appreciated and neglected now, derelict orchards fill our field edges and stand guard over forgotten homesteads. Once these trees were a staple for foodstuff and our founding fathers would have recognized applejack as our nation's spirit. Not that any of that matters, close your eyes and imagine biting into a fresh, firm, tart apple. See what I mean? You heard the sound of biting it, you savored the taste and smell of it, didn't you? One of the favorite signposts of fall for me is the apple harvest. Suddenly you are aware they are everywhere, an infinite variety of apples, each type coming into ripeness over the entire course of the season.
Pumpkins, too, seem to ease the sorrow of summer's unexpected demise. There's something soothing and cheerful about seeing them pop up at roadside stands, soldiered in a line and ready for inspection. Between the apples and the pumpkins, every excursion out of the house is suddenly dotted with the promise of fall.
One of the less esoteric signs of autumn's arrival comes not from Mother Nature, but from the quirky inhabitants of Port Henry. You know fall is here when the “funky folk” come out. These are the amusing and sometimes disturbing effigies of the villagers that line the streets. Silly and spooky figures lurk along the roadside, causing some of us to catch ourselves waving, and others of us to mumble expletives under our breath as we realize they are not real people at all. Are these scarecrow portraits the work of a collective bunch of Dorian Grays or just festive fall fun? Who can say for sure? In any case, once they take up their watch over Port Henry, you are in no doubt that the fall season is in full throttle.
Rituals, or the fine art of enjoyment...
Fall has arrived. You are standing in a world resplendent in golden-hued leaves fluttering on the autumn breeze. It's so lovely you just might release your grip on the tightly held notion that summer isn't over yet. Somewhere in the back of your head you know winter isn't far off, but in the beauty of these moments you know there is time to rest, relax, and enjoy.
How does one go about this relaxing and enjoying business? Everyone is different, but I do it with rituals. I mean that in the loosest interpretation of the word — those little things that need to be done and the enjoyment that comes from doing them. Simple things are satisfying in a complex world. For me there are two categories of fall rituals: those dictated by the season and those I do of my own accord.
Harvest time makes demands on even the smallest garden owners. All through the spring and summer my little herb patch has kept me in touch with nature, if only on a small scale, but fall is especially satisfying as I am rewarded for my efforts. There are still late tomatoes to be collected daily, a growing bounty piling up on the kitchen table faster than I can make sauce. Mother nature demands that I stop my hustle and bustle routine to search through the dying greens and pluck each day's ripe red Romas and Beefsteaks. It's a great way to decompress.
We also have sunflowers, whose blooms gave us joy all through the summer with their beauty. Their drooping heads signify that now is the time for collecting the seeds. The row of heads hanging to dry on the back porch is a yearly sight that brings the contentment of accomplishment.
But enough of Mother Nature's demands, what of those rituals do I choose to do? Those are the best by far, and they allow me to mark fall as a unique time to savor and enjoy. The first and earliest is the trip to Gunnison's Olde Farmhouse Bakery and Gift Shop for cider and donuts. Sure we go there all year round for various things, but going specifically for the first cider and donuts of the fall is a celebration.
For those of you who are not familiar, Gunnison's is an orchard with an amazing gift shop and bakery. To this day I have never taken home one of their pies, because I suffer from a paralysis of indecision when I approach the pie display. I literally cannot choose, and end up opting for the cider donuts when my just standing there starts to freak out the staff. Take a look at this photo and you'll see what I mean.
Of course, I'm being a little facetious. The fact is, while their pies are delicious, Gunnison's donuts are the stars of the show. Coffee is down right lonely without them and they'll do for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if no one is there to judge you on your dietary choices. Jessica at Gunnison's bagged up our donuts without an ounce of judgement and even encouraged me to stop by again soon. I promised her I would, oh yes, I would.
Ice cold cider and fresh cider donuts are the true taste of autumn. It is a treat that makes the world stop spinning for a little while. Our cider and donut ritual is the official yearly christening of autumn, with all the hoopla and grandeur that cinnamon and sugar can rise to. We couldn't wait to get home to have some, and Kaylene rang us up with a smile, politely ignoring our goofy giddiness as we jumped and clapped while waiting for our change. Gunnison's has always been known for the friendliness of their staff, and Kaylene is no exception. I suspect one of the reasons they are always in such a good mood is that they all dip into the large assortment of penny candies there when no one is looking. I know I would if I worked at Gunnison's.
Later in the season, once Halloween is over, we make much ado over bringing in the pumpkins that have adorned the front porch and cooking them down to a beautiful puree — ready for use in pies and soup stocks. Pumpkin pie is a fall and winter staple in our house, not just reserved for Thanksgiving.
Finally, when the weather has turned cold and the first heavy frost is expected, we always mix a cocktail named “Whispers of the Frost.” It is a refreshing libation that will cause you to go to bed without worrying about how cold the night might get. If you decide to take up this ritual yourself, just remember to repeat as necessary until signs of spring are in sight.
If you are thinking about making your own list of little rituals to attain the maximum enjoyment that fall has to offer (and I suggest that you do), then what are you waiting for? Here are a few options to consider:
The Penfield Homestead Museum's Applefolkfest should be at the top of your list. It is a ridiculously gorgeous setting and a great place to spend the day amongst the craft and food vendors and the cider-making and the horse wagon rides and the classic cars — you get the idea... and wear your hiking shoes because once you get a glimpse of Penfield Pond in the fall you cannot resist walking the trails there.
The Heroic Corn Maze changes every year, so if by some miracle you conquer their six-acre maze this time, there will be a fresh challenge next year. Personally, I would pack some food and a blanket, for fear I'm lost in it for a couple of days.
Who doesn't love an expedition for nibbles and gnoshes? You don't need an excuse other than loving great food to make either of my favorite farmers' markets your destination for fall fun. Both the Ticonderoga and the Elizabethtown farmer's markets are open well into fall. Maybe I'll run into you there. I'll be the guy juggling the pumpkins, cider, and donuts.