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An Autumn Escape

Finding the silver lining when plans go awry.

By: Stephen Catalano + Save to a List

I opened the door to our modest cabin, the smell of woodsmoke and coffee hit me as I stepped inside. My friends sat on the floor of the living room, a deck of cards scattered across the carpet… evidence of their attempt to pass the time. The after-morning light beamed through the foggy windows, cutting through the smokey air of the cabin. All eyes shifted to me. While I had spent the last few days out on the trail, my friends were eagerly awaiting my return. After all, we had streams to explore and trout to catch. There was no time to waste.

Just a few days prior, I was finalizing my plans for a week on the road to a new, wild place. It was the peak of autumn and I craved a sufferfest in a far-off location that I knew little about. I planned to spend the week hiking and paddling through cold and wet weather, sleeping in the back of my car, and cooking dinners on the camp stove. Not bad. After so many months at home, this was exactly what I needed. In hindsight, however, I recognize this as a feeble attempt to escape the realities of a pandemic to which I had no control… But alas, I blindly pressed forward.

When I was forced to cancel the trip 72 hours before take-off because of new travel restrictions, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Yet life is seldom so clear when you’re in its midst… and I was bummed. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And I’ll admit, I milked it. After a couple of days, my better half was tired of it.

“You took time off of work… you’re not just going to keep sulking around the house, are you? Go do something, or else in a few months, you’ll beat yourself up for not taking advantage of the time.”

She was right. Ouch.

I cracked open the laptop and feverishly tapped at the keys. Searching for something, anything, to pop out of the woodwork. I was uninspired. I was stuck.

So, what does one do when they don’t know the answer? I phoned a friend. I was hoping that a conversation with an old pal would take my mind off the “problem” at hand. Not only that, but he’s one of those guys that always has an optimistic view on life… I needed a bit of that. After a few rings, his voice cracked through my phone—stoked and positive as always. We caught up with each other for the better part of an hour before he mentioned how amazing the fall colors were looking in the Shenandoah region. News to me. But after a quick check, I confirmed it. The leaves had turned an amazing shade of orange over the last few days.

This was it. For the last four years I’ve spent autumn on the road—chasing the elusive fall colors up and down Appalachia—and I’ve neglected my home park of Shenandoah. I pulled together my gear and loaded up the car for a few days on the road. Within a couple hours, I was traveling west.

I spent the next three days calling Shenandoah my home. I’d rise before the sun and stumble back to my car well after it set, chasing good light and finding new trails in the familiar park. Each day brought cooler temperatures and a steady breeze. Just as quickly as they arrived, the leaves began to fall away. Autumn is fickle like that. It was time for me to go, too.

I phoned home—letting my girlfriend know that in the morning I would pack things up and head to our small cabin for the remainder of the week. To my surprise, she said that she’d be joining, along with two great friends of ours. I warmed up just thinking about a hot meal around a table with my friends.

After a final sunrise in the park, I drove north. I pulled down the bumpy gravel driveway around 10am. Smoke was rising from the chimney and I could see fly rods and waders on the porch. I was home… and I guess we were going fishing.

We said goodbye to autumn that week in the best way possible—in the outdoors with good friends, hungry trout, and plenty of laughter. I couldn’t ask for much more.

I didn’t need that big trip to escape after all.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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