Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Labor Day Weekend in 1987, I was up on Mount Adams, in New Hampshire's Presidential Range, planning to bivouac above treeline, because I'd heard there might be northern lights.

Labor Day Weekend. I wouldn't have had a chance at a spot in one of the huts anyway. But I felt comfortable both in gear and conscience, planning to sleep out up high. I would nestle my sleeping bag in a cleft on the rocks, not on sensitive vegetation. I wouldn't put up a colorful tent and try to make myself at home. I'd brought a small stove, but only to make hot drinks, not an elaborate meal. I was there to get into the place, not reshape it.

My journal for the day notes, "5:30 p.m. -- Awesome! Sundogs! Prismatic flashes at 12, 9 , 3 o'clock around the sun. A ring of light connects them."

The display grew more and more elaborate. My journal entry degrades quickly into awestruck profanity. I will omit that.

"There are now three rings of rainbow in sections with an inverted one above 12 o'clock. This is why I come to places like this! Spotlights of pure white light beam out from 9 and 3.

"The sun's brightness fluctuates as it sinks through cloud layers of different density. It is all cirrus, but some is thicker. The beams aim off like searchlights. The outer rainbow brightens and pales, too.

"Sundogs are an arctic phenomenon. I wonder if this is a good omen for another arctic phenomenon I'd like to see.

"The sun seems to be standing still. There is over an hour of daylight left. People are leaving, although there are quite a few up on Adams. Down here on Sam, I have my own private mountain."

The sundogs sank with the sun. The upper rainbows faded away. Adams looked deserted.

"Soon I'll be left alone with the wild, high night," I wrote.

The right-hand dog sent its beam miles to the west.

"Among all the gray rocks are sudden white ones, white as the bags from a bakery. This simile intensifies, the more hungry the viewer becomes. Below me stands a cairn made entirely of these white stones."

I regretted slightly my choice to forego much in the way of food.

The ridges purpled with the coming darkness. The hazy sky softened all shadows. It was so cool, I felt selfish being alone in it.

"The moon will be up not long after sunset, if it isn't hiding out up there in the cirrostratus already. Sunset is shaping up to be about a 4.5. No more dogs.

"6:55 p.m. --All that remains of the sun is an orange glow between gray and mauve clouds. Not a warming sight, but at least it isn't a stormy yellow.

"I feel like howling a wolf-howl. I may treat the huts within earshot to a banshee wail."

I didn't do that. My natural urge to hide overcame the surge of feral exultation.

Then, when I thought the show was completely over, the sun dropped below the clouds and hung there, an orange disk. I could look almost directly at it as it moved toward the horizon. And I saw the horizon was below me. Even as I absorbed that, I saw, clearly saw, that the disk of the sun was not dropping, it was receding.

We all know the Earth turns and the sun stays in place. But how often do you really get a look at the motion as rotation?

As the cliche goes, I felt the Earth move. I felt it roll away from me, like I was beginning a long, slow back flip. As soon as the sun had set I swiveled around to face east and wait for it to come around again. It was like a huge, cool ride.

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