I turned the corner of a winding road and knew the entrance to Maplewood State Park wasn’t far away. The greeting committee — swirling golden leaves and swaying prairie grasses — beckoned, along with a charming wooden sign announcing maple syrup for sale.
It had taken three hours, and many weeks, to get to this stunning northwestern corner of the state and I was relieved that I had made it.
Fall has always been my favorite season. As a child in New Mexico, my delight in autumn was simple, obvious. The darkening afternoons and first brush of briskness hinted at what was coming: costumes and candy, hot chocolate and hay rides.
Many decades — and miles north — from those innocent years, my relationship with fall has grown more complex. I find it harder, so more essential, to grasp autumn’s bounty without thinking ahead. Seize the golden and fire-red beauty while you can.
Or, more bluntly stated in a bumper sticker plastered on the Jeep ahead of me in rush hour traffic: “Winter is coming.”
Throughout a busy September last year, I nervously tracked the state’s fall leaf map edging daily from green to yellow to orange to red to what-are-you-waiting-for? Would I miss the opportunity completely?
A quick call to Don Del Greco settled me down. He is park manager at Maplewood, a state park renowned for dazzling autumn displays thanks to an abundance of its namesake tree.
“Peak color,” said Del Greco, in a soothing voice, “is the day that you’re here.”
And he was right.
Place of rustling leaves
I finally met Del Greco on an overcast Friday morning in mid-October. After spending a night in nearby Pelican Rapids, I headed toward Maplewood, passing only a few cars and a driver pulling a trailer of pumpkins.
Del Greco’s title is park manager but, in fact, he is a poet in an orange-rimmed ranger hat. One of just three managers spanning the park’s 51 years, Del Greco grew up on the Iron Range, and studied biology and painting.
Blending art and science makes perfect sense to Del Greco, 51, the father of two grown sons. Both nature and soothing watercolors (his medium) inspire “wonder and awe,” he said.
And so we set out in his truck to explore the wonders of this awe-inspiring 9,200-acre park, sixth-largest in Minnesota, with eight major lakes. Camping, fishing and horseback riding all are on the menu, as are 25 miles of hiking trails and panoramic views, the best being Hallaway Hill, which Del Greco guided me toward later in the morning.
Sitting as it does on the edge of prairie lands and an eastern deciduous forest, the park offers unique and varied bursts of color, and audible treats, too.
“You can hear a meadowlark in one ear and a thrush in the other,” Del Greco said. “It is a bit unusual.”
American Indians called this land “the place of rustling leaves.”
Del Greco stops his truck and rolls down the windows. First, silence, then my ears key in to what he already hears.
Not surprisingly, the park tallies more than 140,000 individual visits annually. Today, I feel lucky that it is overcast and cool because the weather has led to this unplanned personal tour, and an opportunity to pay homage to fall which, it turns out, Del Greco fancies, too.
“Fall colors harken to the spirit,” he says. “The aspens are just turning now. The oaks are starting to turn. And the prairie grasses are in their full glory.”
Predicting color peaks is mostly a science, taking into account leaf volume, temperature and the amount of rain, but nature still surprises. “It’s often humbling,” he said.
This is not to diminish the gifts of other seasons. Summer is sweet corn and cabins, endless days without homework, fireworks and the State Fair. Spring is the pretty girl who we hope shows up for the party.
And winter? I’ve made my peace with it. I’ve got numerous pairs of polypropylene long underwear in my drawer and snowshoes in my car trunk. I’ve even worn them.
But fall? What can compare, really, to what draws us to autumn, in our own back yards and in parks and lakes around the state? Of course, it is the burning colors and sweeping vistas, but it is more than that, Del Greco says.
“It’s the slow observance of the wonders,” he said. “The simpleness of a single leaf.”
He has a name for those who feel compelled to reach down and grab a fallen treasure at our feet. We are the leaf-lookers.
“From the wonder of a child to the beautiful elderly folks who just love to go for drives,” the hunt for our leaf, he says, “keeps people coming. People are so eager to get into the park that we can barely sell them their permit.”
Finding the path
Eventually, I am jolted back to reality. The park poet must return to work. Other visitors are arriving now to buy that permit. They have questions and quests of their own for Del Greco.
I begin my solitary hike toward Hallaway Hill. And, not at all surprising to anyone who knows me, I get lost in about three minutes. I find myself quickly at a dead end, in a cluster of trees. I recall that Del Greco told me to follow a somewhat steep, nearly half-mile path to Hallaway. I return to my starting place and consider just getting back in my car.
I’ve had a perfect morning. My love for autumn endures, has even been enriched. I’m starting to feel stressed about getting home. How great a panorama, really, could this vista provide?
Then I hear Del Greco’s voice in my head, nudging me to embrace the slow observance of the wonders. I try again. This time, I find the path.
I greet a couple on their way down. “Almost there,” they say. Otherwise, it is just me.
I arrive at the top of Hallaway Hill, overlooking South Lida Lake in the northwestern part of the park. It is spectacular. I take out my camera, hoping to do justice to the crimsons and golds, still there.
Then I head down.
On the way, I meet Stella Hunt, age 4, of New York Mills, Minn., her delighted grandparents just behind her.
Stella holds a maple leaf. This cherubic leaf-looker is delighted at her find. She lets me take her picture.
I am delighted, too, because it turns out that unexpected rain has blessed this landscape and added to the longevity of the season. It is mid-October.
And peak color was the day that I was there.