Sunrise at Jacob's Chair Trailhead, in Utah

Steady On

Sun breaks over the eastern mesa at 7:47 am.

Its spreading glow drips lighter tints down the upjutting crags and pancake mounds around us, slower than syrup. 

Too bright to watch, the sun climbs into the pale blue, suddenly a full atomic torch chasing the chill and dominating the morning.

Just as suddenly – or what passes for sudden when the pace we’re choosing is set by the turn of the earth – as last when night the sun dropped behind the western bluffs at 7:14 pm. After that we stayed outside, wrapped in blankets and quiet, to watch the constellations and planets take stage on the darkening Utah sky. Sixty miles from any town, we were as alone as we’ll ever be.

With the moon below the horizon, other lights shone prominent. First Mars, claiming the sky from the east and red as the dust we’ve clapped off our boots for days. Then Jupiter, just south of zenith, demanding we crane our necks to see, and outshining the ruddy first-comer.

To the north Cassiopeia, the stark “W,” and Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, both pointing unmistakably to Polaris, each announcing that it knows the way. But only the North Star stands fixed while the burgeoning thousands of pinpricks and beacons spin around it, paying galactic homage. Only it is the unmoving guide.  

There was bright, bright, Vega, high and insistent.

As our overhead stage blackened, countless more light appeared. Among them, from the northeastern horizon to the opposite, our Milky Way, a celestial bridge of impossible dimension. “We’re so tiny and insignificant,” Rachel said, the reverence and nihilism in her voice betraying the dual weight of her sentiment.

Two days ago we had hiked a mile down slickrock and wooden ladders to stand underneath Sipapu, an immense stone bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument. From underneath it was the same perspective as the Milky Way, astride the earth and over us and just as imposing.

Massive Sipapu Bridge from underneath

I looked up with her at the whiteness of millions of stars, our Sol but a wayward outlier. “Yet here we are, seeing it and our place in it. That’s significant enough for me.”

We spied Perseus, low on the horizon, and watched for meteors while we couldn’t help connecting the dots of the adventurer’s constellation. But shooting stars came from elsewhere, catching our eyes and imaginations every few minutes. The Perseids shower is ten months away.

Steady lights, slowly crawling between the others, signaled satellites. Without them or the rare blink of an airplane, the fixed pattern overhead would be the same as that seen by Sipapu’s Puebloan inhabitants a thousand years ago on this same rugged and indifferent terrain. For variety, the moon and planetary wanderers take turns, but otherwise there is only the permanent nightscape ticking hour by hour around Polaris, the unmoving guide.

Steady. Reliable.

For five days we’ve been without internet or, except for brief serendipity, neighbors. And for more than a month we’ve been fully on the road with no timetable except what we choose and what nature grants.

We’re adapting to our new pace: wake with the sun and then when it sets, either retire or rejoice in the night.

But don’t fight it. Don’t fight the steady, reliable turn of the planet on its relentless reach to the east.

Instead, depend on it. Instead, depend on each other.

And see what comes when when the only things you rely on are as inevitable as the turn of the earth and the arc of the sun.

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