Journeys: Chasing Fall Colors

Chevrolet gave me the keys to a 2019 Silverado and told me to enjoy the fall colors for a weekend

Walking along the trail during a fall day in Moose Lake State Park. Photo by Lianna Matt.
Many of the leaves had fallen at Moose Lake State Park, making a golden path for visitors and campers.

All photos by Lianna Matt

My very arduous task last weekend was to experience the Silverado as the gateway to the North Shore’s fall colors with Lutsen’s Summit Express Gondola, a 1,000-foot-high cable ride. My favorite moments of the weekend, however, were the unplanned parts. Because MEA vacationers took up all the hotels at Lutsen, the Chevrolet account executive told me that we would be staying in Duluth and driving up to Lutsen Saturday for the gondola. Really, I think it worked out for them because it split my driving up across all three days instead of just the late night trek on Friday and the return trip to the Twin Cities on Sunday.

The 2019 Chevrolet Silverado. Photo by Lianna Matt.After some panicked moments on my end at the beginning (I definitely thought the clunks of the running boards automatically rising were me somehow denting the car, and I definitely was startled by the seat vibration that alerted me to a parked car in close proximity), my fiancé and I drove up to the Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview Hotel without incident. It was dark out, so the pigmented bluffs of the highway were lost to us, but in the shelter of the car, we talked about our lives, what’s happening in the world, and what our identities were made of. I asked some embarrassing questions that I should have known the answers to, and I took a long time to string my responses together, but he, as always, was patient with me, and the road continued to roll out before us.

At the hotel, we determined very quickly by peering through the sun roof that we should not attempt to continue through the six-foot-tall parking ramp. Once we found a parking spot in a lot across the street, though, our evenings and mornings at the hotel were a leisurely domestic blur of a saturated night’s rest, eating the leftover Betty’s Pies broiled chicken from Betty’s Pies in bed (still tantalizing the second day), and a good amount of Phineas and Ferb. (It was so tranquil, we didn’t even use our drink coupons at the iconic revolving restaurant JJ Astor on the 16th floor. I don’t regret all the relaxation; it just means I have yet another reason to return to Duluth!)

We didn’t have a single itinerary item except for the Summit Gondola at Lusten on Saturday, so after sleeping in, the ride there was filled with me singing to Sirius XM’s Pulse station music countdown because, much to my joy, it not only went through the top hits of the week in 2018 but also in 2012. At this point, I felt like a pro driving the truck, but part of that was also because it had a rear camera for parking purposes and an overhead view with curving guidelines. As the scenery flew by along Highway 61 (and I delighted in the heated steering wheel), I watched as the colors began to thin out as a colder-than-expected September and October had prompted them to change earlier. 

Still, even though we had missed the peak of the fall colors, we weren’t the only ones who were lining up for tickets for the gondola ride. The big pity for me was less so the colors and more so the fact that the Alpine Slide wasn’t open.

Even without peak fall colors, the ride on the Summit Express Gondola in Lutsen is beautiful. Photo by Lianna Matt.
A view of the Summit Express Gondola at Lutsen Mountains.

The ride on the gondola was beautiful in its ridges and cuts, its small winding waterways and sheer height and view. Less so on the colors, but the trees still stood tall above everything, and the mind still soared as it filled in the crevices with snows for skiing or hideaways for adventure and danger. It was only at the top when we walked to the wind-buffeted Mystery Outlook that we saw just how fast the seasons had marched by, unwilling to wait for those ambling along and clinging onto summer.

When I closed my eyes and leaned forward in my shoes on the outlook’s deck, I felt like how I would imagine the ski jumpers feel at Hyland Park. The wind was making even my squinting eyes tear up, and I felt like I had to lean in even more to cut through its strength.

When I opened my eyes, I was met with an expanse of white skeletons of trees across a huge beige backbone rising up to meet the sky. It was like how I imagine looking at a bleached coral reef would look like if you could somehow remove the tragedy from the image. So perhaps it’s best if I describe it as a desert world where the wind rips through it and yet, somehow, impossibly, the trunks of the trees remain steady, a testament to their connection with an omniscient and enduring nature.

The normal Gondola Outlook provided much more evergreens with deep reds and warm golds peppered here or there to remind us that it was, in fact, still fall—although this was slightly contradicted by the snow we walked over to get there.

(Before the people at Chevrolet get too concerned about my musings, there were splashes of color in Lutsen and more during our afternoon drive back from Duluth on Sunday. To throw in a car pitch, I’ll even say the expanse of the windshield made me feel like I was viewing the world in panoramic mode from the driver’s seat.)

A view from the gondola's stop on Lutsen Mountains. Photo by Lianna Matt.
A view from the top of the Summit Express Gondola ride at Lusten Mountains.

A few miles from Lutsen Mountains was a winery we passed on the way up, and we thought we’d stop there on the return trip. Neither of us had been to a winery, after all. Plus, my fiance saw a sign that said they had cider.

We ended up spending a couple of hours at North Shore Winery, a laidback winery founded in 2016 complete with the Sawtooth Mountain Cider House, an outdoor fireplace, a small loop path for what I like to call a “walk and wine,” and cafe lights strung up across the wooden interior. Being that this was our first winery visit, we had to go all out. We compared two white wines, two red wines, two roses, and four ciders head to head with two tasting flights at a wine barrel table. I pretended to be fancy and held my glass by the stem because I learned that’s how sommeliers did it so their skin’s oils didn’t affect the aroma of the wine as they analyzed it. Halfway through, I got some sesame crackers to share, and the salt zipped across my tongue in between the middle round of cider. As we talked and sipped, the time whiled by. It was about 6 p.m. by the time we arrived at Betty’s Pies for supper.

Conversation didn’t peter out there, either. Really, the only place quiet seeped in was in the car, when we were both so comfortable in our own skins and with each other that we could sit in companionable silence, sing along to the radio, and reach across the large middle console to hold hands. (He indulges my sappiness.)

And then it was Sunday, and we refilled part of the monster-sized gas tank to go home. Although any pick up truck doesn’t get great mileage, I will say we were never in danger of running low on gas. One tank is at least two of my car’s approximately 12.5-gallon tank.

Because we didn’t have to return the Silverado until Monday, we made a little detour at Moose Lake State Park, walked the trails a bit, and checked out their agate exhibit. (In case you didn’t know, Moose Lake’s annual July community festival includes an agate stampede where more than four tons of rocks, 2,000 quarters, and more than 400 pounds of agates are dumped into the streets in a crazy free-for-all.) Here, the fall leaves had also started falling, creating a yellow mosaic that crunched underfoot as we walked. The sun shone through the trees, and during one trek near an open field, “Fields of Gold” made its way into in my head.

Here was my favorite moment of the trip, which I distinguish from my favorite part, the visit to North Shore Winery. My fiance and I were walking along the path, and I was rambling on about how the fairy tale treasury I grew up with had an exquisite illustration of Belle from Beauty and the Beast painting trees just like these ones, tall, thin, with their white branches reaching up. It was the rich detail of the painting within a painting that I loved and stayed with me, so that every time I am near such a lush and dense grove of trees that all stretch toward the sky, I think of it. His response? He said that I was wonderful. Obviously this isn’t a big, mind-blowing moment or anything, but it was lovely and given to me by this carved out space of unhurried, uninterrupted time up North.