In the east, dawn is typically a subtle affair. It remains dark until about six a.m. and then, one moment at a time, the world materializes in shades of blue and silver. This is far from the case out west, where the day begins as early as it possibly can and makes time stretch as long as possible, right down to the last sliver of reflected sunset. I never grew tired of marveling at all the different ways light had to play with the world. I would sit on my porch with my coffee in the predawn, sometimes shaking with the cold, and wait for it. Because it was an event worth waiting on–no matter what else I did that day.
In the east, the mountains would be suddenly backlit with a less dense shade of night sky, which slowly brightened and deepened, joined by translucent jade, pale gold, and then the fire of the moment that the sun at last crested the distant and hidden curve of the earth. All this, with still the Sandias black and boldly featureless silhouettes. Dawn was worth waking up to watch happen in New Mexico. Perhaps because it seemed to happen swiftly, in a torrent. After that, while still a time of mystery and a balancing act between coming and going, dawn on the east coast seems a pale, unimpressive thing.
When I think about it, light itself is a different creature here. In Albuquerque, I was constantly stopping to watch the way a surface or geographic feature drank the light. One of my favorite times of day was early in the morning, riding the buss along Lomas Boulevard towards the University. Outside, the bitter air of January held no moisture. Often, the wind would be blowing, knife-edged, an unmerciful gale. Sitting by the smutty glass of the bus window, the cacophony of a double-dozen different conversations choking the atmosphere, I would marvel at the way the winter sun painted itself across the sleepy morning city.
In those moments, the ruler-straight lines of the city’s main thoroughfares became templates for a fleeting alchemy. Ordinary curb edges and the sides of houses were washed in a golden light so pure it hurt me to witness it. A city I knew to be grit-strewn with the gray volcanic dust of the valley was rendered pure from my protected vantage. The transmutation of such beauty from the ordinary makings of city streets–parked cars, skeletal branches of stunted trees and shrubs, even the dried and dead remnants of last season’s plantings were rendered extraordinary by this light.
A particular passage from Frank Herbert’s Dune is always brought to mind when I consider the heartbreaking loveliness of those desert moments. Leto stands at a fortress embrasure on Arrakis, contemplating the blank darkness of the pre-dawn desert and the future of his son as the next Duke Atreides. He witnesses the moment of dawn, and watches the figures of dew collectors moving on the plain below him. It is a moment of incredible beauty, and he thinks that his son must know this beauty, see its intrinsic value, so that he will love this planet.
It was much the same for me, to know the brief moments of beauty that can be had nowhere else. The desert light is unlike any other–keen as an obsidian blade, and beauty rides along that killing edge.