September: A fleeting, magical month

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – October 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

IF THERE’S ANY good reason to live in Central Colorado, it would have to be September, that magical month with brilliant days, blanket-cool evenings, golden trees, cobalt skies, and bugling elk.

September. The kids are back in school where they belong. Their parents are back at work where they belong. The pilgrims, the ones who haven’t moved here semi-permanently, have gone home where they belong. I now find myself outside where I belong. Unhassled by the Chinook winds of winter, the blizzards of spring, or the high-powered pyrotechnics of the summer monsoon, I’m free to enjoy the outdoors virtually unfettered.

September is a fantasy world compared to the rest of the year.

Sometimes I’ll catch a fleeting glimpse of September on a July morning.

High pressure is building and cool air from the north blows another in a long succession of monsoons out of the Rockies and onto the plains. But it only lasts a day or two. And then it’s back to the same pattern — a 99% chance of afternoon and evening thunderstorms, the climatological equivalent of knowing that God will be doing a drive-by on an otherwise fine day.

Towards the end of August, however, the atmospheric lighting changes. The sun becomes more crisp and burns the haze right out of the sky, leaving it a deeper blue. We could still get a thunderstorm — or an early snow — but for the most part the sky is blue and the clouds are white and puffy, adding only accent to otherwise ideal days, which, though shorter, are still long enough to get a few things done before winter.

Sometimes the weather and general spirit of September carries right into October, but it is usually interrupted by the frenetic activity of the orangemen, the hunters that arrive with the first rifle seasons for deer and elk.

I used to be among them, but now prefer to hunt my winter’s meat in the muzzleloading season which usually starts the second weekend of September. I still have to wear orange for this, but the mountains are far quieter, less crowded and safer during this season. The days are long and peaceful, and still warm, so success means a rush to the nearest meat locker.

At least once each September I like to go on what I call a “hunter-gatherer” mountain-bike tour. Toting a .22 revolver, I pedal around the Wet Mountains near my home, stopping to eat raspberries at various thickets along the way, and looking for blue grouse which I like to cook on a late September evening using an extravagant recipe involving wine, leeks, garlic, and a variety of herbs.

I’ve been on week-long September pack trips without getting wet. Up high, the grassy slopes have already browned under the first frost. The bears are working around the clock to put on weight for the winter. The brook trout are ready to spawn; the bellies of the males turn a fiery orange, the bellies of the duller-colored females bulge with the orange roe inside.

Often in September, a horde of mice invades my home. I set traps and toss the dead mice off my deck. They always disappear. Once I saw a Stellar’s jay swoop down and carry off a dead mouse, landing in a nearby ponderosa to enjoy a free meal.

Every few Septembers the less observant ask what’s wrong with the ponderosa pines, as their needles turn brown and blow about. They aren’t dying of any disease or infestation, but merely dropping their needles, which will be replaced by new ones.

The same question is never asked of the aspens, the most glorious and awe-inspiring hallmark of September. The sad thing is that when the aspens reach their peak, it’s almost over. If you could stop the world in its tracks, this would be the time to do it, right when the aspens turn.

A few aspens will prematurely turn at the end of August — a couple of leaves here, a branch there. By the second week of September, a vast number of the trees are beginning to take on a hue that is not exactly green, but not yet yellow either. It’s a difficult color to place, but after some thought I realized that it’s the pukey shade of green common to 1970s shag carpets. This means the time of yellow leaves is nigh.

Quite suddenly, it happens. Whole groves of aspens light up, followed by others. Soon entire hillsides are painted in gold. Some aspens take on a reddish hue, I suspect because of certain minerals in the ground beneath them, or maybe because they are hit with a chill frost while the leaves still contain a certain carotene concentration. These are my favorites.

When the leaves are gold, it’s time to listen carefully in the evening for bugling elk. Sometimes they will rock me out of bed in the wee hours of the morning with their brassy whistling. I’ll walk naked outside with a call in my hand and talk back to them. My attempts at mimicking the bulls are really quite feeble, but often they will humor me with an answer.

As the nights turn cooler in September my thoughts turn to firewood. I heat my home, including my office, with firewood. Where I live at 8,800 feet, I have burned wood at least one day or night every month this year, including one evening in early June when it snowed, a couple of days in a row in July when a cold monsoon shrouded my home in thick fog, and one night in August following a particularly cold, hard rain.

MORE AND MORE I am less energetic but smarter about the wood gathering. A good rule of thumb is to run no more than one tankful of gas through the chainsaw in any given day. It’s safer, and easier on the lower back, sinuses, and mind. I can easily get one load of logs cut to pickup-truck length and out of the woods with such gas-rationing. Once home, another tankful, on another day, will carve these logs into stove lengths. Yet another day with the ax will split them into quarters. I never waste time stacking my wood, but instead heap it in piles.

I also take things slowly with hay, a heavy commodity that must be moved twice — once into my truck and once out of it — in order to arrive in my barn. I need 120 bales to feed my burros through the winter. It’s easier on my back, sinuses and checkbook to pay several visits to a couple of hay ranchers I know, buying 10 to 20 bales at a time, than it is to overload my truck, trailer and body with two 50-bale loads.

This September my outdoors project is Billy Sundae, a 13-hand jack burro I bought from Howdy Fowler, a well-known donkey trainer in New Mexico. Billy is broke for riding. While I intend to train him for pack-burro racing next summer, I find myself saddling Billy with an old cavalry McClellan saddle, the kind used in the Civil War, and riding this calm, sure-footed donkey through the fields and hills around my place. With the warm September sun on my shoulders, the blue skies and gold trees, the movement of a good animal under saddle, the fact that soon this fantasy of September will be coming to a blustery, chilly end is very tough to handle.

It makes me want to pull back on the reins.

J.R.R. Tolkien one-upped God in his fantasy The Lord of the Rings, where, in the woods of Lothlorien, where the elves lived, the leaves turned gold in the autumn, but did not fall to the ground until the following spring when the new green leaves pushed them from the branches.

Alas, Central Colorado is still the real world. Before I know it the yellow leaves will pave the ground like small, thin tiles. The winds ahead of the first winter storms will blow the leaves about, until they are at last covered by snow.

September will be another year away.

Hal Walter lives in rural Custer County, somewhere near one end of the rainbow.