Have you ever looked up one day and realized the season has changed, like the tick of a minute hand on the clock? It was the day when rain took on a slight scent of snow, when midday light didn’t hurt your eyes anymore or when turkey vultures burst from the horizon to swing around the sky. In each place it happens differently, each person witnessing their own moment. Step outside right now — it might happen.
I was in the Grand Canyon on some day in early October — I don’t remember which — when I felt that a page had turned. I’d been going barefoot in the evenings for weeks, since the royal blaze of late August. On this night, with a small camp set on a ledge halfway below the South Rim, I decided to put on socks. As I sat on a sandstone bench, tugging on one sock and then the next, looking out on temples and hoop skirts of stone, a planet-sized museum of weathering and tectonics, I realized autumn had arrived. The socks tipped me off.
The next day, as I carried my pack alone along an inner-Canyon trail, I noticed a sparkle to the cinnamon color in the rock. The light had changed. Hues across the entire Canyon shifted, shadows tipping over some numeric threshold, more shadow than light in the mornings and afternoons. Before this, I couldn’t wait to peel off my sunglasses at the end of the day. Now, I wasn’t pulling them out of my pocket.
To me, the equinox feels like a notable date to celebrate, but it is not the day the seasons change. The real change is more like doors opening and closing in a house.
Equinox comes around September 21, when the sun and the Earth’s equator are lined up, the same amount of light in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, like a flashlight shining directly onto an egg. This is the official end of summer and beginning of autumn. To me, the equinox feels like a notable date to celebrate, but it is not the day the seasons change. The real change is more like doors opening and closing in a house.
In the full depth of the Grand Canyon, the season turns differently every thousand feet. Autumn comes to the North Rim first, then the South, and then cascades into the interior, rolling down slopes and ledges. At higher elevations, leaves of deciduous trees change colors in preparation for dying, while 5,000 feet below, the leaves are starting to green again, coming out of punishing summer heat. Snow will be falling at the rim while you’re down at the bottom among thorny ocotillos waiting for the season to change.
Colors are an easy clue. A yellow feather boa of quaking aspens, Populus tremuloides, wraps around Arizona’s shoulders. From Kaibab gold to the carrot tops of the “sky islands,” shortening daylight and cooler air break down the green chlorophyll pigments in leaves and only brighter pigments remain — like developing film in a lab, bringing out the hidden color.
When I was discussing this article with my wife, I mentioned that it’s easy to get stuck on aspens when you think about autumn in Arizona. My wife, who is from Maryland, asked how many aspens Arizona has: four? I nearly spit out my milk. She was giving me a hard time. She said she only thinks of the big pines — she loves the ponderosas.
I responded: Have you seen the aspen fences? The Arizona high country is decorated with aspens cut down and interlocked all over the place. I grew up climbing over them and sitting on top, swinging my legs. I stammered out names of places, velvet meadows gilt in autumn groves as bright as daffodils, and horizons — horizons, I tell you! — volcanic with aspen colonies. Sure, the East Coast is known for its vast autumn palette, but the Mogollon Rim lights up like a fireworks show, and the San Francisco Peaks — the parts that haven’t been taken out by wildfires — erupt into vaulted ceilings the color of canaries.
The quaking aspen has the widest distribution of any tree in North America, most of them in a swath across Alaska, Canada and the Northeast. The trees descend along the Rockies and encircle the Colorado Plateau, pouring into Arizona, where they form the southernmost large concentration. Aspens continue in small numbers down into Mexico, along the Sierra Madre, but Arizona is the last big stop.
This is where elk are bugling come October and mist sometimes settles into the meadows. Winds begin to strip the leaves, and you find yourself thinking of lower elevations. At night you wear a warm hat and sometimes gloves. In the morning, a skim of frost outlines each leaf on the ground.
You could take the whole month and follow the color gradient from 10,000 feet down to around 5,000 feet, the lowest elevation where aspens are found. You could get lost in all that shine, lingering along creeks, lying on your back and watching 10,000 gold coins flashing against the sky. The point is, you don’t want to get stuck on aspens, at least not photographically. That’s a rabbit hole of visual wonders a camera might never come out of — and, yes, Arizona has more than four aspens, thank you.
Later in the season, as the aspens go out and the leaves fall, the gold continues downhill, igniting cottonwoods and turning sycamores an earthy red. My favorite of the mid-elevation colors is what I call Sierra Ancha purple. It’s the maples. Oak Creek Canyon and a thousand other places have them, too. The canyons of the Sierra Ancha cool earlier than the surrounding land, and you’ll see the first plum-colored leaf in a tree otherwise full of green, as if that leaf popped overnight. After the first one, you’ll see 10, then 20 changing leaves, the eyes of summer closing. Soon, within a week, maybe two, you’re up to your eyeballs in sunset reds and blood oranges.
Bears are foraging, turning over logs and rocks. Hunters have moved in, seeking javelinas and deer. You wear bright colors, much brighter than the maples, which are subdued, like stained glass in sunset light. Each toothy leaf fits perfectly in the palm of your hand. They begin to break off and fall, spiraling to the ground.
You don’t want to get stuck on maples, either, nor the Persian rugs of scrub oaks that cover the slopes below. The change of season should not be hung on color alone. It seems too ostentatious. When it comes to the lower deserts, sometimes at the tail end of October or into November, autumn ignites the last threads of creeks and watered canyons as golden grasses carpet the skirts of the sky islands. Saguaros and their columnar cousins have already gone through their night-blooming cycle, flowers turned to fruit, the last of which lies sunburnt on the ground.
My attention span is about a season long. I wonder if this is a human characteristic. About the time a season ends, I’ve started feeling like it’s worn out its welcome — especially the big ones, winter and summer. The swing seasons, spring and fall, I could always take for a little longer, slowing them down so they can be relished. Especially fall, with its crisp air and atmosphere of harvest. That’s one season I think I could do year-round, except it wouldn’t work. The appeal is the way autumn stands at the edge of change, balancing for just a moment.
The Sonoran Desert comes into this time of year with desert broom blooming and allergies turning on. Bees and butterflies pour in, and the bushes hum. Snakes are seen less and less.
For me, the day I sense the change at these lower elevations usually comes with rain. Summer, which is blessedly done, is divided into two parts: the dry, hot foresummer of May and June, and the monsoon summer of July, August and September, when violent squalls and microbursts send hail that strips off plant leaves and arroyos swell into floods. Those thunderstorms have ended, and autumn tends to be clear and dry by comparison, not so hot, and when the rains come, they’re more like a blanket. Arroyos will flood, but not all at once, not like a hammer coming down. They swell and swirl.
In the rain, creosote smells like medicine. The aroma stands out during the monsoon storms of summer, but not like it does in the slow rains that can fall later in October. Now, the smell is like a theater. It settles in and stays around, and maybe my senses are more open with summer gone. My wife bought a tin of creosote balm to rub on my hands to remind me of home.
The appeal is the way autumn stands at the edge of change, balancing for just a moment.
Autumn in the Sonoran Desert is like being born, more so for me than spring. I find summer the harder season to get through, and when nights finally stop flickering with heat lightning, I feel like I can breathe again. I used to work with a backcountry outfit not far from Yuma, and our season went from early September to the end of October. We’d start with shopping days in Yuma, the bank display reading 115 degrees, and in the backcountry, we’d jump into the tepid pickle water of the Colorado River whenever possible. Then it’s 90, and you’re not swimming as often. Then you see 89 for the first time, and when it rains, it feels like 70. The rain doesn’t seem to burn anymore, so cold straight out of the sky when your skin is so hot. Now it’s more like a hand gently placed on yours. You dip into the river and run it through your hair, but the need to swim is less, and you can think of more than the shade of a paloverde tree.
When it rains, the clouds sit in craggy desert mountains the way they will for the rest of winter and into spring. They wrap around pinnacles like scarves. On those precious days, you’ll be able to think back to the first slow rainstorm, back in October.
The top of the state has turned white, peaks are stroked with snow, and you are in the last corner of the desert above Mexico, in the long mountain chains standing around open mouths of basins. Wind sings through bristling saguaros and chollas. In the evenings, you haven’t been wearing a jacket, and going barefoot would be ideal but for all the cactus spines around. Tonight, you slip on a coat for the first time. It’s just a little chill. Right before stars come out, the thermometer shows mid-70s, just like last night, but it seems different, as if a dial has turned. You wonder: Could that be winter on its way?