The sky on Tuesday looked like it had been squeegeed clean. It sparkled a Windex blue, with nary a cloud in sight.

It was what we in my family call a "convertible day," a day when the police should be allowed to pull over and issue a citation to anyone driving a convertible who doesn't have the top down.

It was as perfect an autumn day as you could hope to find, and though it was Election Day (or maybe because it was), I wanted to push exit polls and undecided voters far from my mind. I didn't want to think about red states and blue states. I wanted to think about red leaves and yellow leaves.

So I called up Maggie Zadorozny, the National Park Service's education specialist at Rock Creek Park, and asked if she'd show me what fall is like in her neck of the woods.

"This is a great time of year," she said when she greeted me, dressed in her Park Service green, a flat-brimmed ranger hat atop her dark curls.

We were barely out the door of the Nature Center when Maggie started pointing things out.

"These little guys here I love," she said as she plucked at a stand of milkweed stalks, their dried pods split open to reveal the feathery seeds inside. She grabbed a pinch and tossed them in the air, where they caught the breeze and floated lazily into the sky.

There's no real hard-and-fast rule for predicting fall color, Maggie said. The days get shorter, and chlorophyll -- the green photosynthesizing chemical that's been hogging the limelight since spring -- exits the leaves, turning the stage over to the reds and yellows that have been there all along, biding their time.

For Maggie, fall is a time for sensory overload: sight and sound, smell and feel. She doesn't rake the leaves at home until after Halloween, since she thinks kids should hear the crunch of leaves underfoot and smell their distinctive odor.

She tugged at some golden leaves running up a tree trunk.

"This is Virginia creeper, a native vine," she said. "This one's yellow, but sometimes it turns red. . . . There's great variability. That's one thing you can be certain of in the realm of nature."

Remember that: variability. It's invariable.

Last year -- the last few years, in fact -- seemed a little dull as far as autumn colors go. What with droughts and floods and tree-toppling hurricanes, it seems as if we haven't had a "normal" fall in a while. But this has been a good one, say those in a position to notice.

Over at Prince William Forest Park, things are superb, Don Janes, a volunteer there, told me on the phone. "It's the best I've seen it. The colors are far more vibrant than they had last year."

Conditions have been first-rate in Shenandoah National Park, too. "I'd say that overall we've had a better fall than last year," spokeswoman Karen Beck-Herzog said. "We seemed to peak right around the time we expect to historically. We kept a lot of leaves a little longer than usual. The valleys and hollows are still seeing some beautiful oranges and yellows."

What makes a particularly good fall?

"People look for the brightness," Karen said. "Last year, the leaves were more muted. . . . A lot of people like to see red. We had a good amount of red, maybe not spectacular, but the reds we did have were very, very bright."

That made it fun for drivers on Skyline Drive, who would be filling their eyes with golden oaks and hickories when "all of a sudden you'd have a red maple stealing the show from the rest of the trees."

Back in Rock Creek Park, Maggie and I had piled into her car and were cruising down Ross Drive. "This is one of the prettiest roads, constructed to be this snaky drive through the park," she said.

Ahead of us, a canopy of branches arched over the pavement. Leaves were falling as perfectly as if stagehands were tipping them out of boxes somewhere up above.

Maggie rolled down the car window so we could hear the delicate pitter of dry leaves hitting the ground.

"Good sound," she said.

Every now and then, we stopped the car to check on a project that will ease the way for fish swimming up the creek. At Milkhouse Ford, bulldozers pushed around rocks to create pools and eddies that will allow fish to hopscotch their way against the current. At Grove 10, a water pipe that impeded the creek has been removed.

When a fish ladder is finished at Peirce Mill, the herring, alewife and other species should be able to do something they haven't done in decades: head upstream to spawn. I wondered what it would be like to be the very first fish to figure out it's possible to just keep on going.

When we got back to the Nature Center, I thanked Maggie for my quick tour, then set off on my own, ambling along the Ridge Trail.

There was a wonderfully clean quality to the autumn light. Each tree trunk stood out in stark relief, whether it was the deeply fissured bark of a chestnut oak or the smooth, pale surface of a beech. I bent down and picked up two perfect leaves, one yellow, one red.

Politics seemed very far away.


I goofed Tuesday when I said that St. Mary's Church still has a service in German. It doesn't. And back when it opened in 1890, only the sermon would have been in German. The Mass was in Latin.