The Frustrating Magic Of Summertime Light

Brendan Leonard looks out at the Norwegian Sea from a beach outside Andenes on the seconde night of a bike tour in northern Norway.

When is it OK to look away? The heavy spring-loaded back door slammed behind me, separating me from the glow of sunset on the other side. I’d just spent a cross-town drive barely able to keep my eyes on the road. The sky was warming and softening, the way it only does on late summer evenings, the clouds opaque and creamy in front of a blue that was deepening into outer space before my eyes. Strung out with jet lag, I still had some work to wrap up before bed, but that sky. It flashed at me through the window in the stairwell, the clouds now glowing crimson like a neon sign. Maybe it’s OK if I turn around and walk away if I snap a photo on my iPhone first, I thought.

The sun sets every single night. You’d think we’d get over it. You’d think we could enjoy stealing a glance and then look the other way. But the thing is, every single one is unique. Is that why I felt guilty as I leaned toward the window and pressed the shutter button, knowing full well that the image would be nothing but crummy? Something about knowing that the sky will never again look exactly as it is in this very moment makes it so hard to turn away. Like we should all just stop. Stop, and fold open our lawn chairs. Point them westward, take a deep breath and let ourselves be amazed by all the details of the fleeting glory. That’s why summer is so frustrating.

A couple mornings later, the same jet lag that had sent me to bed early finally came back with a reward: Waking earlier than usual, grey light seeping from behind the shades, I grabbed my pack, coffee mug and rope and quietly locked the door behind me. When usually I’d still be dreaming, my Subaru stalked quietly through the city streets toward the mountains.

Slowly accelerating onto the highway, I caught my first glimpse of Denver’s foothills, delicate rose pink in the sunrise. The kind of thing that happens every day, I’m sure, though I’m rarely awake and out there to see it. Waiting a moment for my friend to meet me, I pulled out the camera once again. Every dingy, mundane item looks like a work of art in light like that. The trees around the parking lot. The metal American Mountaineering Center sign. The dream catcher hanging from my rearview mirror. Magical. All of it.

We waded up the climber’s trail through golden, backlit underbrush that would soon be washed out in blazing summer heat and climbed shaded, lichen-covered rock. Elizabeth’s face plunged into the honey stream of sunrise just as we topped out. The problem with summer is that sunrises like this come so quickly on the heels of each sunset’s fading glow. For every late-evening sunset there’s a fresh, spectacular dawn worth setting an alarm for. How are we supposed to get all this?

Slow, heavy summer sunsets tickle memories of the days when everything was slower. When all we had to do each summer night was ride bikes around the block and play hide-and-seek until the streetlights buzzed on. It’s not that we stood around marveling at the sunset each night, it’s just that we were there for it to seep subtly into our consciousness. Maybe that’s why sunrises and sunsets are so tough to look away from—they beg the question: what could possibly be more important in this moment than soaking in this ethereal beauty? They hint that maybe we’re moving too fast. That we’re too distracted. Deftly, they divert our attention from morning commutes and steal away our focus from evening work sessions. It can feel frustrating not to be able to just stop everything and take it in as each day’s opus plays out. The grace lies in this: another will come tomorrow.

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