Fall Colors

An aspen tree turns to yellow in late September near Cache Creek.

Most magic is just good math, expressed physically. Photographers love to rave about that time they caught the “magic hour,” shooting in that brief golden window of day slipping into dusk. What they really mean is that they planned ahead enough to take their photos at a time when the earth’s rotation on its axis coincided with its revolution around the sun in such a way that its light bounced flat across the horizon.

There’s no real magic, just geometry and the long shadows and hypersaturated colors that come with a great sunset. I gave a state college four years of my life and way too much money to have them explain to me how all the different kinds of magic, including sunsets, are just boring scientific mechanisms.

I’d leave class each day with yet another type of mysticism dispelled, a more complete understanding of the world we live in, and a little less magic. Some kids become scientists because “wizard” isn’t an available major. Understanding the magic makes them more powerful. Others just don’t like the inherent helpless surrender that comes with admitting to not knowing how something works. I’m one of the latter; there’s something deep inside of me that always wants to at least look like I know the “why.”

I’m not content to ski a good powder day. I want to know that the snow was so light and dry because it came in on a storm system from such and such a place, and it hit the Tetons at just the right time of night to dump fine, low-density powder on the aspects that I want to ski. And I don’t just fall in love with certain skis. I want to know all the stats that translate to a ride that I enjoy.

I’m not just happy to ride good dirt on my mountain bike, I’m that guy who Googled what “loam” actually is, so that I can rain on your parade and let you know that there’s not any actual real loam on Shadow Mountain, but maybe you found some duff or something else. And your suspension isn’t just “buttery smooth,” it’s some combination of linear and progressive curves that work together to improve your ride.

So when we headed out to ride, I wasn’t optimistic about our prospects. It’s been a beautiful but dry fall, and the trails are almost as haggard as my riding shoes. They’re dusty and rutted, drifting deep with bone-dry silt.

As we approached the trailhead the slight elevation gain pushed us into the lower fringes of the shifting aspens. Green moved to gold along the road, until we were driving up a fiery avenue. We let the dog out of the car, and she snuffled in the downed leaves while I got my bike.

There are certain trails I try to ride only once or twice a year, because they’re not that great, and everyone rides them, so I tire of them fast. This was one of them. I hadn’t been out on this trail yet this summer, though, so it felt fresh, new roots and rocks but an elevation profile I vaguely remembered.

We crossed the first creek and stopped to let the dog drink, then pushed up and down a few more climbs, skirting parallel to the range, cutting across drainages. I opened it up on the descents, trying not to brake or pedal, carrying my momentum as far as the trail would take me. The aspens burned brighter with every foot of elevation gained, and I drifted through their leaves on the loose corners. Finally we crested our last climb, and turned back to the car.

The sun was lower in the sky now, and as I dropped into each corner I could see the dust motes hanging where I’d flung them. A squirrel scurried across the trail and watched from a rock as I popped off a root ball. At the creek I tried to jump off a log and gap over it, barely splashing my rear tire in the mud on the other side. The last descent was longer than I’d remembered, more technical, and I bounced through water bars, laughing as the bike bucked beneath me.

I waited at the last bridge, leaned over the railing and watched impossibly large trout tread water upstream in the lee of a log. Their dappled sides danced with the sun on the surface of the water, only the orange on their throats betraying their presence. We loaded back into the car, drove home as the sun sank lower behind the Big Holes and hollered at the cows along the road.

As the aspens blended with the dusty sunset I remembered the class where my teacher had killed the magic of the golden hour. She’d taught us how to use artificial lighting to reproduce a sunset, how to diffuse and angle the light to simulate dusk.

She’d shown us a series of photos, asked us to tell her which ones had been real sunset shots and which were artificially lit. Of course, at the end she showed us how they’d all been faked, no real sunsets involved. But none of them smelled like this, of sweat, and dust, and beer, and dog. None of them felt like this. And maybe that’s sort of the point of magic.

Cy Whitling writes every other week on living and playing in the mountains. Contact him via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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