November 2013

My rose-colored glasses

By David Feela

By the first week in October the aspens start igniting like candles and the scrub oak begins to rust. I’m burning a tank of precious gas, taking a color tour of the high country, our most transitory art gallery here in the Southwest. There’s a little more than a fortnight, give or take a few days, to catch the best of the show. Below-zero nights, temperate days, followed by sudden wind gusts that move in and strip the stands of trees bare with little warning.

While driving up 145, before I even reach Rico, I’ve counted at least a half dozen vehicles pulled off the highway, cameras at the ready, sucking the scenery in and loading it onto their digital flatbeds. If color were audible, it would sound like a 4th of July crowd, the oohs and ahhs deployed like airbags inside every car, drivers leaning into the next curve, and the next one, and the next. Every passenger transformed into a hunting dog, pointing. And every dog disgusted that it has to compete for its chance to get its own head out the window.

At 10,000 feet it takes until mid-July for summer to fully arrive, because up where Lizard Head casts its shadow, spring appears late, and autumn shows up early. My camping thermometer registered 32 degrees on June 4 and 32 degrees again on Aug. 14. If summer can squeeze itself between these seasonal markers, it may only last a month, but what a glorious season.

If the lizard’s head emerges at 10,000 feet, then its tail must reach all the way to Cortez, where I begin my color tour each autumn. In 30 years I have run up and down the lizard’s spine countless times, or at least enough to know I stopped counting.

Science explains the leaves changing color like this:

According to experts, the fall colors we see are actually present in the leaves when they first appear in the spring, but the abundance of water in the soil sends the trees into a kind of chlorophyllic overload, overpowering the yellows, oranges, reds, and purples. Green is what we get, all spring and summer, which is fine with me, as long as the green is accompanied by warm, blue skies. It seems as the chlorophyll in the leaves catches sun and uses the light for energy, it changes water from the ground and carbon dioxide from the air into glucose. Green: just another case of sugar addiction.

If you prefer magic, then giant chameleons inhabit the rocks, their skin scaled over with leaves, stretching out in the sun, many of them bigger than Bigfoot, or Nessie, or even King Kong. With about 160 species of chameleons accounted for, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t come in a range of colors, including pink, blue, red, orange, turquoise, yellow, and green. When the weather gets cold, of course, they migrate to warmer climes like the snowbirds.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter why the leaves change, only that they do, every year, with ample time for people to catch them on a weekend drive, at a relaxed pace, not sneaking a peek through the windshield while commuting between some overly familiar rock and an equally hard place.

My first fall in Colorado, an elderly secretary I’d met waylaid me in the school-district office on Friday afternoon, insisting I be ready for a drive into the mountains on Saturday morning. 8 a.m., she said, she’d pick me up at my door.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re off to see the Lizard.”

“May I bring my best friend?”

“Only if her name isn’t Toto.”

“What sort of gear should I pack?”

“A jacket and your rose-colored glasses.”

She arrived promptly at 8, didn’t even shut off the engine. We climbed in, exchanged greetings, and her foot was against the gas pedal before we could buckle up. In the back of her little Subaru hatchback, she’d stowed a picnic blanket, a wide-mouthed thermos of homemade chili, water bottles, and a pint of peppermint schnapps. Her yellow brick road looped from Cortez to Telluride to Ouray to Silverton to Durango and back to Cortez. The three of us pulled over and laughed frequently along the way, one of those memories that sets up like concrete and remains solid enough for a lifetime of driving. Then she deposited us at our doorstep just as the setting sun tried to imitate the panoply of leaves.

My rose-colored glasses have been useless since then.

David Feela is an award-winning author, poet and essayist in Montezuma County, Colo. He has a blog at