Though New England hogs the spotlight for autumn-leaf glory, a California writer much prefers her new home's 'disco-queen' fall foliage.
Every October, tourists head for New England to ogle the autumn leaves. They fall in love with the blazing colors, the pleasant days and the crisp nights. They start dreaming about settling down there on some red-and-orange leafy lane, where life would be all harvest fairs, pumpkin patches and L.L. Bean outerwear.
Well, as someone who lived there for the first 30 years of her life, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: autumn in New England is just messing with your head. Sure, it’s beautiful and sexy, but it’s not interested in a long-term relationship. It’ll steal your heart and cloud your judgment and, a few, short weeks later, you’ll wake up in an ice-cold bed. The dazzling blue skies and sultry-colored trees will be gone, replaced by winter, as gray, phlegmy and depressing as a grizzled old drunk exposing himself on the Common. And as you stare out the window at creepy, naked branches and dirty snowbanks, you’ll realize what a sap you’ve been. Dude, autumn in New England will wreck you.
I'll admit, even after 25 years of living in California, I still get a little nostalgic for those seductive Massachusetts falls whenever I pass a solitary maple glowing orange among the evergreens and palm trees. It took me a long time to stop missing the clearly defined changes of season.
When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in May of 1987, the weather was sunny, warm and dry with cool, foggy nights. It stayed that way, pretty much every day, with an absurd perfection reminiscent of Albert Brooks’ vision of the afterlife in Defending Your Life. Then, in November, I looked up and there was strange wet stuff falling from the sky. Had I really not seen rain in six months? It rained for the next six months. Not all the time (this isn’t Seattle), but enough to make you notice. All that rain, and the absence of freezing temperatures, made for year-round lush greenness.
It seemed like the Bay Area had only two seasons: rainy and summer. What happened to fall and winter? It was all too freaky. How can there be no snow, no ice, no miserable summer humidity? Life was soft here. As a native of Boston, and, thus, one who was taught to embrace suffering as a badge of honor (for further clarification, see “Red Sox fan” in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”), I felt guilty. And then I went back to flipping burgers on the backyard barbecue in the middle of winter. In a T-shirt. And sandals. Wild horses could not drag me back to Massachusetts.
Beautiful Fall Foliage -- And No Snowblowers
Over the years, I’ve learned that there really are seasons in the Bay Area’s Mediterranean climate -- autumn included. The grapevines of Napa and Sonoma Wine Country bronze up in October. The ubiquitous gingko trees turn bright yellow. The princess trees lose their splashy purple flowers, but the leaves go all red and orange as a consolation prize. There are pockets of color-changing big-leaf oaks and maples in neighborhoods all around the Bay Area and in old-school leaf-peeping destinations, like Feather River Canyon in Plumas County in the Northeast corner of the state (where the Sierras and Cascades meet), and the Gold Rush towns of Nevada City and Grass Valley in the Sierra foothills. Apparently, the New Englanders who settled in Nevada City brought their sugar maples and little steepled churches with them. Forget Disneyland, this is Vermontland.
But California’s true fall colors are hues that you would never expect. We’re all about the pink, fuchsia, purple and blue, as the crepe myrtles, oleander, lantana and hibiscus explode into bloom, like the disco queens they are. Because September and October tend to be our hottest months, the bougainvillea in my backyard is still hanging around sucking up the heat, and the hummingbirds are sucking up the bougainvillea. And did I mention the butterflies? In October, the migrating orange and black Monarchs reach California’s Central Coast on the way to Mexico, spending the winter in the eucalyptus trees at Santa Cruz’s Natural Bridges State Beach and in the Monarch Grove Sanctuary in the city of Pacific Grove (self-proclaimed “Butterfly Town, U.S.A”), near Monterey.
And, really, when you have Monarch butterflies and hummingbirds, palm trees and grapevines, roses that bloom well into November, barbecues in December and not even the faintest threat of a dirty snowbank or a windchill factor of -20, do you really need showy fall foliage? It would be too much of a good thing, like putting Angelina Jolie’s head on J-Lo’s body, or bedazzling an Alexander McQueen gown. And this is why Mother Nature, in her infinite fairness, gave New England all the best fall color. Because they need it a hell of a lot more than we do.
Joyce Millman has written for Salon.com, the New York Times and the San Francisco Examiner. The twice-Pulitzer-nominated writer's essay, "A Map of the Future," appears in Eric Meola's forthcoming book of photographs, Streets of Fire: Bruce Springsteen 1976-79 (HarperCollins). Follow her on Twitter @joycemillman.
Want other great fall-foliage destinations? Check out more LeafQuest.
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LeafQuest Special: Read Atlantic columnist James Parker's take on New England foliage.
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