Driving south on the Taconic Parkway, the Adirondacks offering up their panoply of fall colors, I bid a melancholy adieu to a life of leaf peeping. Seeing so many leaves turn color will change a man, and not necessarily for the better. Peeping is a jealous mistress, and I’ve been forced to sacrifice everything I’ve held dear: My wife divorced me, I lost my job, and my fantasy football team consistently finishes in the bottom third of the league.
Where did it all go wrong? How could so much beauty produce so much pain?
I’ve been a leaf peeper for over fifty years now, back when people called it “branch glancing” and the only enthusiasts were either forest-dwelling hermits or good old-fashioned perverts. I’ve peeped everywhere from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the forests of Japan, where I trained in the ancient practice of momijigari (“red leaf hunting”), which sounds as hip in Japanese as “leaf peeping” does in English.
I first started leaf peeping as a young private during the Vietnam War, honing my craft while patrolling the jungle for VC. I’ve brought the same intensity to every mission since, but every great peeper needs to know when he’s past his peak color.
I won’t be missed much by the leaf-peeping community. I was never one for guided bus tours or swapping tales of derring-do over French toast at B&Bs. The true peeper hunts alone, surviving on acorns, apple cider and adrenalin. He rarely bathes, sleeps in the woods and always keeps an eye open for Charlie. His bed a pile of fallen leaves, he awakens each morning to marvel at the kaleidoscopic canopy above his head as he checks his crevices for ticks.
But leaf peeping is a young man’s game now. These new guys are fast, ruthless and “extreme”; my tripod-mounted manual Pentax is no match for their GoPros, souped-up ATVs and flying squirrel suits. Since I’ve grown as dry and withered as a sun-scorched leaf, it’s time to give my peepers a rest and pick up a less taxing hobby.
Taking in the fall colors for the last time, I think back on the good moments. My ex-wife and I met on a scenic Vermont road very much like the one I’m driving on now. She rear-ended me when I abruptly braked to snap a pic of a poplar grove. After I recovered from my surgeries and dropped my lawsuit against her, we became man and wife, consummating our love under the blazing foliage of a sugar maple.
When I forgot our autumn anniversary five years running, though, she left me for a lumberjack, which I found to be a tad passive aggressive. (At least it wasn’t a birder.)
Shortly thereafter I was fired from my job for accessing www.leafcreepers.com on a company computer, or for taking a three-month vacation every September, or for performing a lewd act in the vicinity of a Sassafras. I forget which—that whole period is an intoxicating blur of oranges, purples, yellows, golds, burgundies…
Ave atque vale, prismatic foliage resplendent in thy death throes. It is with a heavy heart that I abandon the sacred oath of the leaf peeper: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Where will I go? Who knows? A frozen tundra. The Mongolian steppe. A floating oil rig. Just as long I’m far from any deciduous temptress seducing me with her autumnal hues. To some barren expanse where I will never again hear the siren song of dry leaves crunching underfoot, nor ever again lay eyes upon a tree like that one right there, brazen in its roadside russet glory, calling out for me to slam on the brakes and indulge myself in one final, ecstatic peep…