Off the Porch: Desert sunrise

Jan. 29, 2014 @ 02:19 PM

I was running a little late and I knew I really didn’t have time to stop. I was driving through the hills south of Mayer, Arizona, and the plan was to meet up with Gio Scianna at 7:30 for a desert bird hunt. It was already 7:20 and I had several miles of washboard desert road to negotiate. I noticed the sunrise as I swung into the turn lane for Old Sycamore Road. From the valley floor, it was little more than a warm glow along the tops of the mountains.
As I climbed over the hills separating me from the YMCA High Desert Hunt Club, where we were meeting, the glow got stronger and by the time I attained the first ridge, I could see the reds, blues, and purples of an early desert sunrise. I have no earthly idea where my attraction to sunrises and sunsets comes from, but I am fascinated by them.
Perhaps it’s because there are no two alike. Even if you throw out the totally random nature of the colors created every day by different weather patterns, they’re still different based on where you are when the sunrise occurs. From place to place, the perspective changes them, so no one truly sees the same sunrise as someone else.
I tend to like all sunrises and sunsets, but the best ones are in the remote places. Power lines, buildings, and other signatures of civilization tend to spoil the view. Over water, they can be especially beautiful because the water often reflects the color and doubles the affect, sometimes as a mirror and sometimes the watery sunrise is an abstract version of the heavenly one because of movement of the water.
I particularly like desert sunrises. Maybe this is because I haven’t witnessed as many desert sunrises, but I think it’s because they have such a different nature than our lacy tree lined sunrises. In the South, there are few places where the tree line doesn’t form the horizon. This creates a border that resembles lace, or maybe raveled fabric. Coastal sunrises are bordered with a perfectly straight horizontal line. Desert sunrises are almost always silhouetted by jagged mountain ranges. The distant ones have a hazy look but when the mountains are closer, the effect is more dramatic.
A High vantage point gives the best results, and as I was driving up the dusty, washboard road to the hunt club, I was climbing to the top of the ridge that overlooked ten miles of desert floor. When I reached the last ridge before heading down into the valley, I pulled the car over and got out. The purple and blue edges of the sunrise were giving way to pink and orange colors and the point where the sun would soon break over the mountains, glowed a warm yellow.
At this time, there was still no direct sunlight anywhere. The desert floor was still a brownish gray but there were visible shapes in the form of pinions, catspaw, and cactus forming shapes and structure among the rocky outcroppings. As the light increased I could make out the edges of the draws and the way they riveled out across the desert floor, like veins on the back of an old man’s hand.
The first break of sun across a distant horizon always creates a dazzling burst of light that shocks my eyes, and then I can begin to make out the shape. From the first spark of direct light, to the sun clearing the horizon takes about three minutes, and they are a magical time for me. There is no better time in one’s lifetime to contemplate the blessings in one’s life than those three minutes that happen every morning of every day, whether we’re in a position to notice them or not.
As the sun finally cleared the horizon, I thought of my commitments and turned back towards the car. I looked at my watch and realized I was going to be a few minutes late. I hate to be late, though I often cut things pretty close. Had I kept driving, I would have been just on time. As I approached the car, I looked up and saw the desert sunrise bonus, the way the mountains in the other direction look in the morning sun.
There is no more beautiful light than the first and last minutes before the sunrise or sunset begins. Behind me, as I was watching the sunrise, the first rays of light illuminated the distant rusty red mountains behind me. It was like a bonus, or maybe better, an encore. A couple more minutes were spent on that view, and I was again on the road.
I actually got to the hunt club before Gio. I had a foam cup of coffee when he came in the lodge. “Sorry I’m late,” he apologized. “I had to stop to watch the sunrise.”
I knew I was hunting with the right guy.