YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Catching fall colors where America began

Making a pilgrimage to Massachusetts for autumn leaves, Revolutionary War sites and the homes of early American writers, all clustered around the small town of Concord.

September 17, 2000|By Susan Spano

CONCORD, Mass. -- When the maples turn, it isn't only autumn; it's peak tourist season in New England. City people phone fall foliage lines for color updates, and back roads are clogged with eager leaf peepers. But as 19th century essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "The beauty that shimmers in the yellow afternoons of October, who ever could clutch it? Go forth to find it, and it is gone."

His words argue for catching the fall show not by driving after it, but by staying in a perfect New England village and letting it happen around you. Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine have popular autumn getaway spots, but I recently discovered a less obvious contender in Emerson's Massachusetts hometown. Together with villages such as Lexington, Lincoln, Groton and Bedford, Concord lies in a hilly region a half-hour's drive northwest of Boston, where the suburbs yield to farm fields and forests. Lazy rivers beckon canoeists, treasures spill onto the sidewalks from antique shops and farm stands fill with the fruits of fall.

It wouldn't be stretching it to say that Concord, founded in 1635, is the pattern of the New England country town, with a proud square, white-steepled churches, mossy graveyards, handsome colonial-era homes and more historic and literary sites than some cities 10 times its size.

And then there are the sugar maples, the crown jewel of a New England fall, which turn such lurid shades of red, yellow and orange that New England's strait-laced founding fathers must have had to avert their eyes.

"I do not see what the Puritans did at this season, when the maples blaze out in scarlet," wrote Henry David Thoreau, a Concord native. He knew better than anyone that when they ripen, they outline nearby Walden Pond; frame the North Bridge, where the American Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775; and put on a leafy fireworks display around Monument Square in the center of town.

Weather dictates the unfolding of autumn colors, of course, as well as their duration and intensity. But according to Gregory Burch, the owner of Concord's Hawthorne Inn--where I based myself during an early September visit--trees in town are already beginning to turn. In a typical fall, colors climax around Columbus Day and last through the end of October.

I was too early for changing leaves, but in this town of 13,328, it is never too early or late, too hot or cold, to have your mind elevated and your heart stirred. From the homes and haunts of great writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne, to the places where the first pages of American history were turned, there is much to see and think about in Concord.

My visit started at Boston's Logan Airport, where I rented a red Mustang convertible. ("Cool cah," a teenage boy yelled to me in that unmistakable Massachusetts accent at an intersection stop.) I'd been warned about Boston traffic tangles and confusing highway on- and offramps due to construction of a massive tunnel known as the Big Dig. But I arrived at the Hawthorne Inn that night with only minimal inconvenience.

Innkeeper Burch made me a cup of herbal tea and showed me to my first-floor room, called Punkatasset for the Concord hill where American militiamen gathered before the battle at North Bridge. The room was a pure pleasure, with a queen-size, canopied brass bed, floral wallpaper, Oriental carpets, antique lamps, a writing desk and a 19th century fainting couch. Occasionally I heard cars passing outside, but this troubled me only briefly as I got into the spirit of the area by reading "Nature," Emerson's best-known essay. Each night I sampled a different Concord author; they all seemed to invite deep sleep.

Burch and his wife, Marilyn Mudry, opened the dusky rose-colored inn in 1976, and live in the rear section with their three children. Built in 1870, it occupies a plot of land once owned by novelist Hawthorne, who in the mid-1800s lived across the road in a house called the Wayside. The Hawthorne Inn's seven guest rooms are full of antiques, and the walls are abundantly covered with an eccentric but appealing collection of art: Balinese masks, botanical drawings, Japanese prints and stone friezes carved by Burch, who is also an artist. Gardens, benches and more objets d'art surround the inn, and Burch taps one of the maples shading the inn for syrup each year.

Los Angeles Times Articles