Of all the things 2020 has taken from us, our lost trust in the reliable march of time is among the most alarming. Seasons have little meaning—social lives are frozen back in spring, summer was a boomerang of sunshine and smoke, and fall? Which phrase chills the blood more, "Zoom Thanksgiving" or "election coverage"?
But one hallmark of Pacific Northwest autumn has been blissfully unchanged: the larch tree. Our own signature fall foliage show. At a tiny lake in the Pasayten Wilderness this September, I ascended a steep hiking trail to find a grove of slender larches, a quarter of them already showing sunny yellow on the otherwise sage-green branches. An instant, uncomplicated thrill: Neither rain nor snow nor apocalyptic smoke or destabilized democracy could stop larch madness. Soon the yellow will spread like a sunrise to all the larches, then they’ll deepen into a frenzied orange before pre-winter winds whip the needles off the trees for good.
The East Coast can keep its leaf peeping; I won’t even make fun of the name. New England’s broad swaths of maple and oak line the highways, surround picturesque old barns and cider mills. You can leaf-peep while safely inside the car, blasting classic James Taylor and sipping a PSL. Are we still saying "Keep it"? Keep it.
The PNW larch experience demands considerably more effort. Few can be seen from a road. The Evergreen State gets its nickname from forests that hold their earthy emerald all year; the larch only grows on certain slopes, mostly at high elevation and east of the Cascade Crest. The western larch (Larix occidentalis) and the subalpine larch (Larix lyallii) are mostly accessed on hikes in the North Cascades, erupting into new colors only after summer shorts must be traded in for GoreTex and fuzzy gloves.
Certain trails, the gentler ones, will get very crowded in the next few weeks: Blue Lake off Highway 20, nearby Cutthroat Pass. But years of exploring the Eastside’s sub-mountain ranges—the Sawtooths, the Entiats, the Pasayten—gave me my own secret spots. Tiny tarns tucked between rocky peaks and lined with larches, or high alpine passes where single gnarled trees stand sentry. The trees are so hardy, anchored in the dirt in places prone to forest fires and bitter winds, so even as the delicate needles fly off in confetti clouds, the trees themselves will make it through winter.
Larch season comes with no complicated family ties, like Thanksgiving. It hasn’t Halloween’s kiddie focus or clever-costume pressure. There’s no brand logo a la PSL or the grating miasma of misogyny and giant scarves that comprise “Christian Girl Autumn” memes.
The trees give us the year’s golden hour—a brief, perfect moment just as winter starts to fall. Spring usually gets pegged as the season of renewal, but in 2020, a figurative sunset sounds pretty cleansing. I'll probably feel my first snowflakes of the year while hunting larches; I'll probably be very tired and nearly alone, with only a dog and a hiking partner for company. My cell phone won't do the color justice. It won't be cozy and it won't last long, but I'll chase the larch all the same. This year, I don't need any reinforcement that things are ephemeral—but I'll bask in the reminder that things are beautiful.