I'll never miss that forlorn feeling when the first snowflakes dusted through bare branches, a harbinger of a too-short fall turning to winter.
But every few years, I get the urge to catch a change of season: from summer to fall, with its gaudy banners of color, and so it was that we gathered our calendars, maps, reference books and toll-free numbers to plan a fall color junket to the Northeast that would include stops at our favorite Civil War battlefields and some of my favorite railroad locations. We decided to use Washington, D.C., as our base for day trips.
Finding autumn foliage at its peak is a delicious combination of latitude, altitude, meteorology and luck. The transformation of chlorophyll into brilliant hues is brought about by colder temperatures and shorter exposure to the sun. Thus, fall color begins first in the northernmost climes and works its way south.
All of this can be fairly predictable if you don't have to consider the weather. A cold front sweeping in from Canada can throw the color schedule into chaos. A driving rainstorm can reduce the peak of color to a few hours before the leaves vanish from the trees.
Making reservations for accommodations in any foliage-viewing territory becomes _ in the long run _ a roll of the dice, and going without reservations can mean spending a chilly night or two in the car.
We chose mid-October as the most likely time to catch autumn glory at its zenith. Each day was to be short in terms of mileage (128 miles was our longest drive) to allow the greatest amount of time for just stopping where the leaves were at their brightest.
We left D.C. on a crisp Monday morning and drove up the Virginia shore of the Potomac River past Langley to Great Falls. After cutting its way for hundreds of miles through the Allegheny Mountains, the Potomac suddenly picks up speed as it slashes through Mather Gorge just 17 miles upstream from Washington.
Great Falls Park, run by the National Park Service, offers ideal spots for viewing the falls as the river drops about 400 feet in four miles. Adding interest to the park are the ruins of the Potowmack Canal and the village of Matildaville.
This canal _ said to be America's first _ was begun in 1785 and finished in 1802, providing access to Georgetown for flatboats and their cargoes from Cumberland, more than 190 miles upstream. The canal company could not compete with the C&O Canal on the other side of the river and went bankrupt.
Heading northwest, we reached our next destination, Point of Rocks, Md., one of the sacred places on the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Here, the B&O's Old Main Line from Baltimore and its Washington branch joined to push on to the west. Today, Point of Rocks' Victorian station is still in service for the clutch of commuter trains that serve the two nearby cities five days a week.
From Point of Rocks, we followed roads that didn't even show up on our Maryland map, through Brunswick, Weverton and Sandy Hook, all names along the old C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad.
Our two-lane road climbed through Technicolor forests of northern oaks, maples and gums. We headed toward Dargan and Antietam and a side road that led to the Kennedy Farm. There, in 1859, John Brown, his sons and his band of freed men and escaped slaves plotted and gathered arms for the seizure of the Federal Armory in Harper's Ferry, in what is now West Virginia.
Kennedy Farm is a most unlikely historical place _ a handsome log house overlooking a pasture and a goat pen. No ranger greets visitors. A mesh fence surrounds the farm, and a hand-lettered sign asks visitors to "please close the gate so the goats won't get out." Two grazing goats and three white ducks guard the grounds of what some consider to be the modest birthplace of the Civil War.
Country roads led us northwest to the town of Sharpsburg and the Antietam Battlefield National Park. With a total of 27,000 killed in one day, Antietam is America's single bloodiest day of battle in any war. Here, the afternoon sun gleams on the burnished Civil War artillery pieces that dot the cornfields and pastures of the battlefield.
A blazing red sumac accents the hillside overlooking the graceful stone arch bridge where Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside threw his troops time and again against fierce Confederate fire.
We headed south, heading for our night's lodging in nearby Harper's Ferry. Perched above the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harper's Ferry is one of the most picturesque communities and national parks in America.
As the grandson of a B&O engineer, I cherish Harper's Ferry as one of railroading's great places. The lonesome sound of a whistle at night awakens my soul. Unfortunately, those whistles also awakened my wife many times that night, so we disagree on the ambiance of that Hilltop House room.
South, into Virginia
It was near Belle Grove Plantation along Cedar Creek, about 15 miles south of Winchester, Va., by Middletown, that the last great Civil War battle of the Shenandoah Valley took place in October 1864. Today, Belle Grove and its surrounding acres probably look much as they did on that day when Union Gen. Philip H. Sheridan brought a close to the Confederate Army's free access through the valley.
From the verandah of Belle Grove, Massanutten Mountain looms like a sleeping dragon up the middle of the Shenandoah Valley. A staffer at Cedar Creek visitor center advised us that Fort Valley, as the crater-like crown of Massanutten is known, would be a fine place to view the foliage away from the crowds.
He elaborated that Fort Valley came by its name at the end of the Revolutionary War when Gen. Washington sent a militia to occupy the area as a last stronghold in case of his defeat at Yorktown. In this part of Virginia, rubbing up against anything will leave you with the residue of history.
Fort Valley is remote. County Road 678 winds across this mile-wide valley from ridge to ridge with few farms and even fewer side roads. The hollow peak of Massanutten is prime leaf-viewing country, with golden maples and scarlet oaks competing with the orange banners of gum and sassafras.
The spine of the Blue Ridge
Around Washington, Virginia's Skyline Drive is acknowledged to be the big league of fall color driving. The drive is the winding spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. After the splendors of Fort Valley, we looked forward to Skyline Drive with eagerness and with a little concern about the traffic.
We left the Shenandoah Valley at Luray, Va., and entered the drive at Thornton Gap, heading south. The drive is two-lane for all 105 of its miles, has dozens of scenic overlooks but only five areas with restaurant and restroom facilities.
Maneuvering Skyline Drive is pretty simple: You drive the 35 miles per hour speed limit because the car in front of you is doing so, and you will likely wish to turn off at the next scenic overlook _ wonderful places but usually filled with dozens of other leaf-peepers. The motorist must stay alert for traffic pulling into the roadway, sudden stops by the preceding car and the distractions of hikers along the roadside.
While the traffic proved to be surprisingly moderate, so, too, did the foliage. Judging from the barren branches of many trees, we must have been a week or more late for the good stuff. What a difference 3,000 feet of altitude can make.
So we altered our plan and left the drive after 35 miles at Swift Run Gap, heading for Route 29 south to Charlottesville.
Leaf-viewing has, as its standard measure of awe, the wow factor _ as in "Oh, wow!" after every curve in the road. Double wow would be a superlative view. In Stanardsville, we encountered our first Wow to the Third candidate, a magnificent orange to yellow maple, perfect in its shape. The service station parking lot across the street was busy with gawkers stopping to look at and photograph this splendid tree.
Charlottesville is the home of Thomas Jefferson's "academical village," the University of Virginia. The influence of this great statesman _ and local farmer _ is found everywhere. We wound up the mountain past historic Michie Tavern to Monticello, his home, and caught the first shuttle bus to the mansion. If you've never seen it before, you'll recognize it as the building on the reverse side of a nickel. When Jefferson first began construction of Monticello in 1768, the Blue Ridge just a few miles to the west represented America's wildest frontier complete with wild game and Indian tribes.
Jefferson was described by a French visitor in 1782 as a "musician, draftsman, surveyor, astronomer, natural philosopher, jurist and statesman." That he was all of these and more is proven by the guided tours of the house where women with wonderfully rich Virginia accents point out the intricacies of Jefferson's home.
His bed, for instance, is located in an alcove below an obelisk clock he designed in 1790. Daniel Webster wrote, "He rises in the morning, as soon as he can see the hands of his clock." Jefferson died in that bed on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Strolling the grounds, we passed excavations of archaeologists who are unearthing the secrets of the working buildings and slave quarters that surrounded Monticello. From the verandah elevated above the stables, one can stand where Jefferson himself viewed construction progress of the University of Virginia and, through a hole in the trees, we can see the white dome of the rotunda just as he did.
More color on the way home
Heading northeast on the final leg of our trip, we passed lush farms surrounded by white fences and approached by long drives shaded with turning oaks and maples. Each farm has its own name.
Past historic Orange, we drive through the Wilderness, Chancellorsville and Spottsylvania national military parks. These places are strangely free of the state monuments and memorials that mark their more infamous Civil War battlefield kin. At Chancellorsville, a simple information plaque marks the spot where Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded by friendly fire.
We stop in nearby Fredericksburg, wearing layers of history like coats of paint. Across the street from our inn is a stately home where George Washington's married sister once briefly dwelled _ and it's not even on Fredericksburg's official list of historic places.
Fredericksburg's waterfront along the Rappahannock River is alive with restored buildings of the Revolutionary era that still bear the scars of Civil War battle: The city changed hands seven times and was the scene of bitter fighting in December 1862. Today, downtown Fredericksburg holds numerous antique and memorabilia stores and arts and crafts galleries.
The gracious buildings of Mary Washington College occupy the high ground less than a half mile from the downtown waterfront. Here, on Marye's Heights, Confederate troops dug in to pound Union soldiers as they fought their way from the waterfront, door by door, street by street.
And here is the Sunken Road beneath Marye's Heights and a stone wall behind which Confederate sharpshooters poured point-blank fire into futile wave after wave of troops ordered forward by Gen. Burnside.
On Princess Anne Street, we discover the penultimate Wow to the Third tree: Another golden maple with an orange crown that blends down to the richest yellow.
Jim Patterson is a freelance photojournalist living in Largo.
IF YOU GO
We consider our three-day color junket a success. Excluding side trips, we drove 350 miles on the Shenandoah loop, with plenty of time for leisurely stops and strolls around the battlefields and through the woods. The mostly two-lane roads were uncrowded, largely due to the fact that we were there during the week instead of over a weekend. Mid-October was perfect _ with a tip of the hat to the weather and luck _ crisp nights and mornings, beautiful sunny afternoons.
Staying there: We stayed at the Hilltop House Hotel in Harpers Ferry, West Va. I had specifically requested a view overlooking the town and rivers, and we got Room 169 _ affectionately known as Heaven because it is tucked beneath the eaves of the four-story hotel. The three-windowed dormers provide spectacular views up- and down-river. Toll-free telephone: (800) 338-8319. Rooms from $65. Top-floor view room with Jacuzzi from $110.
In Fredericksburg, it was the Kenmore Inn, 1200 Princess Anne St., Fredericksburg, VA 22401; (703) 371-7622. Rooms from $85. Excellent dining room.
To learn more about Monticello, contact the Department of Public Affairs, P.O. Box 217, Charlottesville, VA 22902; Fee charged.
Shenandoah National Park/Skyline Drive, Route 3, Box 348, Luray, VA 22835-9051; Fee charged.
Belle Grove Plantation/Cedar Creek Battlefield, P.O. Box 137, Middletown, VA 22645; fee charged for plantation tour. Free auto tour of battlefield.
Antietam National Battlefield and Cemetery, P.O. Box 158, Sharpsburg, MD 21782.
Fall foliage information numbers:
Maryland: (800) 532-8371
West Virginia: (800) 225-5982
Pennsylvania: (800) 847-4872
Virginia: (540) 999-3500
Blue Ridge Parkway: (703) 857-2213
Parks administered by the National Park Service usually have entrance fees. However, special passes are available for senior citizens at reduced cost and for persons with disabilities at no cost.