Long after Laconia Motorcycle Week is over, and long after the summer vacationers have left Lake Winnipesaukee and gone back to school and the humdrum of workaday life, Gary and I show up at Weirs Beach on a pair of black-as-night BMWs (me on a K 1600 Grand America, Gary on a K 1600 B). We have come to see death. No, not some morbid, dark death that ends up in the police blotter of the local paper. We’re here to see fall foliage. Fall foliage is, after all, a spectacular death, a choking off of the leaves that gave the tree life until the green chlorophyll dies. But catching peak leaf season is a tricky proposition, highly dependent upon what the summer weather was like and the transition to fall. Things get doubly complicated when you book hotel reservations, and triply complicated when you’re on a motorcycle, as peak leaf season in parts of New England is well past the normal riding season. But we’ve got heated grips, heated seats, and heated jackets. And we’ve got roads to ride.
The morning is bright but chilly as we ride to Meredith for breakfast and then chart a course northward along the Pemigewasset River. While most of the traffic is on I-93 or NH 3, we’re on smaller NH 175 and have the road more or less to ourselves. The sky fills with clouds and the roads are damp but it’s not raining. We stop at Flume Gorge, where a short hike takes us past Table Rock, a large, flat rock formation over which the Flume Brook flows, and shortly afterward up to the gorge itself. Many of the trees along the trail are still green, but some have already shorn their leaves and others are harvest gold. A wooden walkway hugs the multi-story high sheer granite walls of the narrow slot-canyon and carries us over the Flume Brook as it tumbles gently over boulders at the bottom. It’s hard to believe that this burbling brook cut through this hard stone, but it did.
Back on the BMWs, a storm is blowing through Franconia Notch and we don our rain gear and push northward. The road, now just a single lane in each direction, squeezes through the notch—the rounded, nearly bald Cannon Mountain to the west and the more angular Mount Lafayette to the east. We turn onto NH 18 and watch our dashboards warily as the road climbs and the temperature drops into the 30s. And then something other than rain falls from the sky. Thankfully it’s not snow; I never thought that I’d be happy to see hail. But nearly as soon as the hail starts, the road drops down towards the town of Franconia, the temperature rises back into the 40s, and the precipitation abates.
We aim toward Vermont but cut south on NH 135 before crossing the Connecticut River. Much like the morning, larger parallel roads carry most of the traffic along the river, so the road is as quiet as the small farms and towns that it connects. In the late afternoon, rain clouds roll in from Vermont and we turn eastward on 25A in an attempt to outrun them. The road zigs up and over rolling hills thick with trees as we chase blue sky ahead of us and watch the clouds fill our mirrors. Within a minute of getting back to the Half Moon Motel, the skies open up and the ground is slick with hail.