Free in Fall

A leaf, browned and stiff, detaches. Having surrendered the solid security of a tree branch, it has naught but the autumn breeze to hold onto. The wrinkles and folds that the mere idea of winter etched now determine its path: an irregular spiral towards the ground. It careens, sheds any delusions of control, and sinks stolidly along its fated route. Not until it meets the dewy ground – slimy and stuck amid scores of fellow decomposing leaves – does it know rest.In the seasonal life cycle of the tree and the leaf I see echoes of my own. Right around the time of falling leaves – mid-to-late-October in this part of the world – I found myself in a different kind of free-fall. Upon the closing of school for Fall Break, I felt a landing of sorts, as though I had just set down after a long and bumpy flight. This feeling, I decided, was an unlocking from a groove, the necessary line of maximal efficiency that Swarthmore demands we adhere to, and it was followed by the unconstrained possibilities of life without obligation. Well, at least life without immediate obligation – this is Swarthmore, and therefore even breaks aren’t really breaks.

I had postponed the planning of a trip for the impending break for weeks before the date arrived. As it happened, I still had no plan when the first weekend came around. I spent Saturday luxuriating in the seemingly endless free time, and continued the revelry into the night. There, with a group of friends in Philadelphia, I felt the habit of a recent graduate slip over my thin scholarly skin. I walked around the city with friends and cavorted in freedom, enjoying the trial of a rapidly approaching identity.

The next morning, I carried out the vague plan I’d made the night before by driving a few friends up to New York City, where they each had plans of their own for the week ahead. Still feeling light and unencumbered by any kind of itinerary, I zipped through the drive with nary a thought in regards to the next few days. Those few days, it turned out, progressed in much the same manner: I walked around the city, spent the night on an inflatable mattress, and then continued my way north out of a fortunate confluence of mine and a friend’s plan and a desire to see the autumnal foliage at its peak.

I was not disappointed. I spent a few days at Hamilton College with my friend and her sister (also a friend), preparing my thesis and just absorbing the novel yet familiar feel of their college. From there, Clinton, N.Y., I set out to Burlington, V.T. via NY Rt. 8, a scenic byway through the Adirondack Mountains. Though I’ve done some blue-highways driving before, this was the most picturesque drive I’ve ever done. I was hemmed in on both sides by every imaginable hue in nature, in fact too numerous to name, except for one: blue. Though not the first color you think of to characterize the fall, blue seemed to me the most spectacular. I’ll elaborate.

While driving, one cannot help but look ahead. Ahead of me on this trip was usually road and trees of spectacular colors, but occasionally I was afforded a more open vista, which then allowed me to see farther into the distance. In this distance were mountains, generally, and sometimes lakes, but these are marginal to what I want to describe. Ahead of me, for my column’s purposes, was the blue distance. Every scenic vista I came to, at a high point or a mountain pass or simply a clearing through which the highway traveled, I saw the mountains bathed in an airy blue. This color must not be foreign to me, as I must have seen it all the other times I’ve looked out to distant mountains, but it stood out to me this time. Having this blue wash way out in front of me proved to be a wonderfully complimentary frame for the lush New York and Vermont scenery in the foreground.

I spent my only night in Burlington at a place called Radio Bean, a café/bar with live music, listening to their house band play Honky Tonk. I met a few interesting people, had a few tasty drinks, and walked a few blocks back to the hostel for the night. Then I was back through the Adirondacks the next morning, and through Pennsylvania to Swarthmore the next afternoon.

Those next few days, which, like the first moments of consciousness upon awaking, were ephemeral and quickly forgotten, included some familial bonding, including a hike and a family dinner, and served to slowly wake me up after a brief Fall Break siesta of unplanned movement. The time away had been equal parts solitary and in company, and in company with those for whom I care, so that when Sunday finally did arrive, I felt well rested and well nourished in preparation for the return of Swarthmore’s rigor, and could only remember the week before as a dream.

In that dream, I walk along a Swarthmorean path and watch as a leaf floats earthward and settles atop the layer of variously decomposed leaves – a scrap on a pile of death or the foundational lining of a new season of life. Like this dream, and my Fall Break, I think my Swat career will possess those qualities of a thing so perfectly suited to sate my desires: an indiscernible onset, blink-fast progression, and evanescent memory.

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