By John Blankenship
An autumn drive through southern West Virginia reveals a vivid land of color and charisma. Old W.Va. 3 from Shady Spring to Hinton could be described as a din of screaming splendor.
Sumacs shriek beside the winding two-lane road, their irate leaves flushed wrathful red. Maples bellow yellow and orange chants as they wave limbs at the blaring blue sky.
Oaks chatter, birches babble and willows gab in a clamor of colorful gossip — all contributing to a flamboyant color display.
Everywhere, hillsides stand in rousing ovations. The arboreal multitudes hail the vivid arrival of autumn in Southern West Virginia.
Every fall season I promise myself that I’ll take a day and just drive along the vibrant lanes of my native state to photograph this harmony of hues. I am amazed that our mountain thoroughfares aren’t bumper-to-bumper with leaf-peeping patrons.
Instead of snarling chaos, the bucolic countryside near White Oak seems cloaked in magic. In tribute to the season, some residents have decorated yards with pumpkin-bodied mannequins.
Others vend gourds, pumpkins, honey and apple butter from rural roadside stands.
Reticent drivers slow to a petty pace and let the colors do the talking. Occasionally, they stop to visit the roadside apple stands and honey vendors.
And if they’re planning a leaf-looking trip along any of the local mountain highways, they may be in for a pleasant surprise: This year could turn out to be better than many might imagine.
Some Appalachian plant experts predict that autumn color this year will range from above average to simply incredible in some locations.
Thanks to an early rainy season and late dry period, trees in the mountains probably will convert their sugars into eye-popping color if the weather remains favorable.
Tourism officials are anxious to get the word out that West Virginia fall colors should be better than average. The peak week or best time to see the most color likely will occur around the middle of October. But leaf-lookers can still expect to see some showy trees a week or two later.
Currently, the brilliant autumn display seen all over the hills is making Southern West Virginia one of the most beautiful color destinations in the East.
That’s according to the folks at Tamarack, located near Beckley on I-77 at Exit 45.
As the fall leaves turn color, thousands of motorists arrive to share the breathtaking view of nature’s fiery kaleidoscope.
“When people pass through here for the first time in early fall, they are mesmerized by the foliage,” one Tamarack official told me recently. “They are stunned by the beauty; they don’t want to leave.”
Starting in mid-September, counselors at the information desk at Tamarack offer tourists a fall foliage map and a calendar of events so visitors can plan their trips around peak times for brilliant colors and popular local attractions.
The leaves, however, don’t just turn into a blazing panorama overnight.
It takes more than frosty mornings or chilly nights to make a splash of reds, oranges and yellows across the mountainous landscape.
Autumn’s tint of gold is present even when spring first arrives.
When the leaf buds first burst open in the spring, they contain hints of the yellows, reds and oranges that will shine through in the fall.
In autumn, when the weather turns cooler and the days grow shorter, trees slow their rate of photosynthesis and the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down.
As the nights become cooler, the trees begin to go dormant and the sap starts to recede.
With the sap down, the sugars accumulate in the leaves and stimulate the production of red pigments.
The more sun, the more sugar and the more the red colors come through. Each of these plants in turn has its own peculiar autumn hue.
Autumn travel, meanwhile, is better on weekends, and the color is brightest in the second and third weeks of October.
Even so, much of the mystery and majesty of Southern West Virginia lies in the changing faces of the changing seasons.
Late September has its own special fall color as the goldenrod, blue asters and purple ironweed spring up along country thoroughfares like a crowd watching a parade.
But the brass band in that parade comes with the boisterous arrival of October as autumn leaves turn every shade of yellow, red and orange in an unparalleled scenic display.
“People who are new to the mountains are stunned as they pass through the area,” said Elizabeth Ellison, a 6th grade teacher who has her students engaged in a number of colorful seasonal projects at Shady Spring Middle School. “It’s not uncommon to see people stop along the highway and marvel at the colors of our foliage and wildflowers. It’s one of the most spectacular sights on the planet.”
— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org