There’s no shame in leaf peeping.

Mother Nature isn’t embarrassed about her natural good looks, despite the red hues that spread across the woods this time of year like a blush.

Critics might call her autumnal display showy. Evergreens might roll their eyes amidst their deciduous neighbors, whose flamboyant performance is a little over the top.

But the maples, oaks and birches agree: If you got it, flaunt it. So go ahead and gawk. Ooh and aah. Take photos if you’re so inclined. The spectacle won’t last forever.

Some locals may scoff at the long caravans of cars crawling along Maine’s winding rural roads — making a run to the store for milk an errand that can take all afternoon — though we can’t really blame the day-trippers.

But those drive-by admirers are limiting themselves. Fall can’t be wholly experienced from the passenger seat of a heated four-door sedan, where the window hinders the pine and campfire smell and the stereo drowns out the sound of dried leaves scraping against the forest floor.

A better idea: Ditch the car.

Last weekend I joined a small cohort of friends just over the Maine border in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest for a weekend of leaf peeping and pedaling along the well-groomed trails.

Thrill-seeking mountain riders we were not. There was no plan to tip the front tires of our bikes over a steep and rocky mountain trail and wish for the best. Instead we stuck to wide-berth routes like Rob Brook Road, a forest service road not far off the scenic Kancamagus Highway.

We aimed for “leisurely trail ride” — a course our shockless, hand-me-down bikes could handle. But we were in the mountains, after all, and gradual inclines have a way of toying with your quadriceps. The click, click, click of changing gears became the chorus to the sounds of wind-blown branches and the occasional grunt. But the climbs got our blood flowing just enough to shirk the fall chill.

Our uphill efforts were rewarded by the downhills, where we sailed along with gravity and our tires stirred up the brown-leaf carpet. The cold wind blew back our hair and found the gaps between sleeves and gloves. In my periphery the trees blurred.

We dismounted a few times to maneuver over fallen trees or to climb a rock. More than once we laid our bikes down and reclined in the crunchy short grass to watch the leaves drop from overhead like bright chips of paint.

And barely a few minutes seemed to pass before someone complimented the view again.

The 15-mile loop, which undoubtedly sees plenty of foot and tire traffic throughout the summer, was essentially deserted — aside from the foliage preening in the afternoon sun. We met with a few other riders and hikers at the trail head, but it seemed the nearby Fryeburg Fair had lured most folks to Maine.

Close to the end of the trail, the Swift River cuts a watery swath across the path. We took nature’s hint to break for lunch, drink some water and adjust our layering. Our chatter fell quiet for a few minutes, except for the random crunch of an apple or crinkle of a lunch bag. Our lunch break backdrop was idyllic to near distraction, the already bright colors electrified by the sun’s reflection off the water.

No one pretended they weren’t awed by it.

But there was one lingering reality: The tail end of our trail lived on the other side of the shallow river. And the water was cold — we knew that even before our toes went into it.

A few in our group had prepared and brought water shoes or an extra pair of socks to protect their feet from the sharp and slick rock bottom. The rest of us tucked our socks and shoes into our backpacks, rolled up our pant legs and prepped for a cold, wet walk.

One by one we entered the water with an exclamation. While the water was no more than a few inches deep in most spots, it was cold enough on bare toes to make me instinctively jerk my foot back. But cold water goes with the territory in New England, and I wasn’t about to be the last woman standing on the opposite side of the river.

So forward I moved, pushing my bike alongside me. The water bum-rushed my ankles while my toes took time to find solid footing, careful of the grape-sized stones that look smooth through the jostling water but are readily capable of giving an uncomfortable jolt to an unsuspecting sole.

On the other side, we sat down again to thoroughly dry our feet before slipping them back into the warm embrace of wool socks.

It was only a few hundred feet before the trail would dump us back out onto the Kancamagus Highway, loosing us back into the world of paved roads and leaf-peeping traffic.

But before we bid goodbye to nature’s quiet confines, I let my eyes linger on the glittering river and the crowd of trees that stood at the water’s edge like an elaborate display of daytime fireworks frozen in time. Admittedly, I gawked. But I felt no shame in staring. It would have been a shame not to.

 

Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at:

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