A car with a retractable top, an affinity for roads that I can have all to myself, a love for driving during the fading moments of daylight…these ingredients meld wonderfully when it comes to the pursuit of sky-watching, which, to me, is often more fascinating than viewing the landscape at hand. I have vivid memories of one especially magnificent display of light in the South Dakota sky on a late-September evening in 2011…
The sun had been down for fifteen minutes or so, and I was rolling westward at fifty miles an hour. The terminator, moving at around seven hundred miles an hour, had already raced by and was dragging twilight in its wake. The sky was nearly cloudless, the air was still and slightly cool…perfect conditions for an evening drive. And the sublime music playing on the stereo would only serve to amplify the grandeur that I was about to witness.
The laser-straight road and the absence of other vehicles allowed me to steal frequent glances toward the stratosphere. Behind me, the sky was a wall of deep steel, and up ahead, a blaze of pearl. As beautiful as those vistas were, the real magic was taking place directly overhead. Turning my gaze straight up the Z axis, I was looking into a fluid palette of stunning color…every conceivable variation of blue and lavender arranged in an orderly and seamless progression; each shade radiating with intense saturation and vibrance, while somehow maintaining the subdued luminance one would expect at this hour.
I’ve experienced twilight thousands of times over the years but I have never contemplated it to this degree. Despite the necessity of returning my eyes to the road every two seconds to hold course and to scan for animals and other vehicles (none ever materialized), I was able to study and appreciate this wondrous sky through the many brief looks that I was allowed. And within this fantastic array of color, there was the impression of strange movement and transformation. It’s difficult to describe, but…it did not appear that the next color in line was simply sliding forward to replace the one ahead; it seemed as though I was observing each shade morphing into something new, as though I could fix my eyes on any small patch of the sky and watch as the molecules dissolved and reformed in a different hue, as if viewing some chemical process in slow motion.
Though I have no evidence to support the theory, I was convinced that forward motion was the key to this illusion…the LeMans and the twilight, moving in the same direction at different speeds. Had I parked the car at that moment and looked up, I knew, somehow, that the effect would be lost.
All of this went on for several blissful miles as the entire event sped across the plains. I had an unobstructed view of this incredible sky, and with each passing minute, I could see this little corner of the prairie being swallowed as the twilight drifted in silently from the east, crept closer from the left and the right, and descended from above.
Another surreal component of the light show was the sensation that this was not taking place in the distant reaches of the atmosphere; rather, it seemed to be happening immediately above me, within throwing distance. Never in my experience has the sky felt so strangely close. With no clouds overhead and the sky growing darker, all perception of altitude was lost.
My reaction to this spectacle was, not surprisingly, my standard reaction to scenes of overwhelming visual splendor: a discharge of laughter and expletives.
In my brain, exhilaration + ecstasy + awe = mirth.
As to what I witnessed in the sky that evening, no photograph could possibly do it justice. None were attempted.
For posterity, I nabbed this scene with my phone several minutes later…looking to the southwest, a young waxing crescent moon at the center of the frame.