MANCHESTER, Vt. — A swarm of leaf-peepers will descend on this lush valley town this weekend, hoping to gaze upon tree-lined streets and majestic mountains awash in fiery autumn hues.
It’s almost October, but a warmer than usual September means the Green Mountains are still living up to their name. Missing are the broad, dazzling swaths of yellow, orange, and crimson that almost always turn the Manchester area into a carnival of color by this point in the calendar.
What makes some tourists see red — but not yet in the sugar maples all around them — is being greeted by many Vermonters with been-there-before patience.
A foliage flop in a state known worldwide for its vibrant palette of fall colors could have ramifications beyond a less interesting view. Vermont attracts 3.5 million visitors and $460 million in spending a year during foliage season, which reaches its peak around Columbus Day.
If some of those tourists decide not to make the drive, that’s money lost. And although many lodgings in Manchester are booked months in advance for the season, no one wants to hear that the star is a no-show.
“If people don’t see color, they get a little discouraged,” said Jennifer Casey, co-owner of Equinox Valley Nursery, a 45-acre cornucopia of pumpkins, plants, vegetables, and apple cider doughnuts.
Some blame unseasonably warm weather and the lack of a frost in this valley nestled between the Green Mountains to the east and the Taconics to the west, 40 miles north of the Massachusetts border. Some blame a dry August. And others blame mysterious, fickle factors that Mother Nature uses to confound predictions for the start of foliage season.
“We had two of the warmest weeks of September in a long time, and the leaves need a cold snap to signal the change in color,” said Laura Peterson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Tourism and Marketing.
Temperatures in Manchester, population 4,300, soared to the mid-80s last week. On Thursday, shirtsleeves and shorts were the tourist uniform on a day that reached the mid-70s.
To many locals, the warm temperatures have made the outdoors even more enjoyable.
“It’s fine with me that it’s late because it’s beautiful and green, and we know that winter is coming,” said Becky Kotler of Manchester, who walked among pumpkins and mums at Equinox Valley Nursery.
Nancy Lenhardt, who has operated a hot-dog cart in downtown Manchester for 30 years, echoed that attitude. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” she said with a beaming smile. “We’re going to pay for it later on.”
Michael Snyder, the state’s point-man for foliage questions, said the change in color is not “late,” only “delayed,” and will fall within the historical range of when the season begins.
Colors are changing significantly in the Northeast Kingdom and higher elevations of the Green Mountains, said Snyder, commissioner of forests, parks, and recreation. Elsewhere in the state, a cold snap — not even a frost, but temperatures in the 30s, he said — could trigger rapid changes.
“We’ll see this thing pop, and then color will come on,” Snyder said.
The ingredients for a robust season are in place, including plenty of moisture earlier in the year that made Vermont’s trees full and lush, Snyder said. Now, it’s a day-to-day waiting game here, although temperatures are not expected to drop near freezing at least through Wednesday.
Shorter days, less sunlight, and cold prompt a tree to redirect the chemicals that make chlorophyll — the green pigment in its leaves — to other parts of the plant, Snyder said. That process exposes underlying colors in the leaves, such as yellows and orange and reds.
It’s a process fixed by nature. But Snyder, with a deep background in forestry, chuckled when asked to predict a date for peak foliage.
“We know a lot about this, but I’m happy to tell you we don’t know everything,” Snyder said. “It’s a bit of an adventure.”
It’s also an adventure for innkeepers. Nancy Hanes Ess, events manager at the Inn at Manchester, said people call every year asking when the foliage will peak. Gerry McFarland, director of sales and marketing at the Equinox, said the luxury resort fields similar calls.
The area’s natural beauty is reward enough for almost all travelers, McFarland said. Although “some people have unrealistic expectations,” he added, the certainty is that the foliage will change — eventually.
On Thursday, the expectations among visitors on Main Street did not rise or fall with the foliage. Dominik Bugmann, a tourist from Switzerland, relaxed on a bench, camera on his lap, and savored the brilliant sunshine. “I expected to see a bit more foliage, but I’m enjoying this,” Bugmann said. “It’s still warm here. It’s perfect.”
Down the street, Paul Smith strolled past boutiques as he enjoyed the calm before a wedding he’ll attend. No blazing-orange foliage in sight. No matter.
“It would have been nice,” said Smith, who lives on Long Island. “But it’s still beautiful.”
That’s the mantra of Berta Maginniss, executive director of the regional Chamber of Commerce. She knows what to expect.
“You can see it coming, and it’ll come fast,” Maginniss said. “It’s about to get crazy here.”
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