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American Idyll

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SEASONAL ITEMS Vermont’s pastoral landscape dazzles year-round, but in fall it’s transfigured.

There’s no time of year when the bucolic spirit of Vermont is more purely distilled than in the fall. Farm stands, pumpkin patches, and restaurant menus are all bursting. Locals anticipate how long they’ll have to wait before experiencing a sacred rite of passage: biting into a fresh cider doughnut as a crisp breeze sends winter’s early RSVP. Yes, I’ll be there.

But first comes the changing of the leaves, an event unparalleled in our nation’s cycle of natural pageantry. While plenty of states can boast of riotous reds, fiery oranges, and glowing yellows on select swaths of wooded acreage, in Vermont the dazzling colors are everywhere -- at least for now. Climate change could soon diminish their duration and intensity.

Before the Fall

The timing of Vermont’s Leaf-viewing season depends on a specific temperature pattern: cold nights followed by warm days. Chlorophyll, which gives leaves their green color, breaks down during nighttime chills and allows underlying yellows, oranges, and reds to show through. But there are signs that the season, typically the last week of September and the first few weeks of October, is starting later each year because of warmer-than-average temperatures. What’s worse, since the hues of the state’s maples are dependent on early cold snaps, the colors themselves are at risk of being dulled. The same dynamic may be behind a recent decrease in the trees’ sugar content: bad news for the state’s syrup industry. The University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center is studying the threat to maples and exploring solutions.

Because the fall foliage can be found all over, there’s no need to flock to the predictable meccas of Stowe or Woodstock, already filled with bused-in throngs of leaf-peepers. There are plenty of sublime experiences to be had in less obvious locales: think Townshend or Quechee, Dorset or Arlington, or any of the charming towns in between. You’ll recognize them from Norman Rockwell paintings: the steepled white churches, the covered bridges, and the old-fashioned general stores that have somehow held their ground against national chains.

Wherever you wind up, find a path in the woods and take a walk. Any innkeeper or waiter or general-store cashier will tell you where to go. Under the burning mosaic of the canopy above you, as your boots tread the gorgeous carpet of what’s already fallen, reflect on the meaning of a line from a poem by Robert Frost, New England’s timeless poet laureate: nothing gold can stay.

Stay at the Windham Hill Inn in West Townshend. There are foliage-filled views from all 21 rooms and 160 acres to explore.

Visit Hildene, the Lincoln family estate in Manchester. Tour the Georgian Revival mansion and walk the 412-acre property.

Hike to the fire tower in Molly Stark State Park in Wilmington. Though no fire has been spotted in years, it will look as if the entire mountain is ablaze.

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Ben writes about climate, energy, and sustainability for numerous publications and is the former environment editor at GOOD. He's the author of "The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City" and currently lives in Vermont. ... READ MORE >