Into the sunset

2020-12-08
I have long thought of myself as a sunrise person. When I was a child, my father would go off to the airport in the predawn hours so that he could take advantage of the cooler temperatures and lower density altitude to fly in the high country with a light airplane. I loved to go with him and learned to wake up and get out of the house quickly in the predawn hours. When I was a student, I learned that I could obtain hours of quiet work time by rising before other students. My first college work study job was opening the campus library. Most days I had the library to myself for nearly an hour before someone drifted in and then, it would only be an occasional visitor, usually a panicked student who had forgotten to pick up a needed bit of research the night before. Susan and I made it through college and graduate school with a single typewriter. The arrangement worked because I typed in the morning and she typed late at night. We rarely needed the machine at the same time of day.

I grew up on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains, where the sunrises were dramatic because we could see much farther in that direction than we could see at sunset. The sunsets were beautiful, but shorter lived and often a bit less dramatic than the sunrises. Chicago is definitely sunrise country. With Lake Michigan to the east, sunrises over the lake are dramatic and gorgeous. They were easily accessible to those of us fortunate enough to live within walking distance of the lakeshore. It was my one piece of wilderness that made living in the city bearable for me.

For the past twenty-five years I have lived on the east slope of the Black Hills. Black Hills sunsets can be dramatic and beautiful, but the sunrises are even more dramatic. With a panoramic view of the plains and badlands to the east the sunrises stretch from horizon to horizon. During my time in the hills, I lived just ten miles from Sheridan Lake and one of my favorite adventures was to take a canoe to the lake in the predawn hours so that I could be out on the lake at sunrise. By paddling east to west, I could change the sun angle enough to prolong the sunrise. I have thousands of sunrise pictures from the lake and feature a few of them on my website.

But every life has its sunsets. I’ve been reminded of this as so many of my childhood heroes have come to the end of their lives. Yesterday it was Chuck Yeager. I read about his record-breaking flight to be the first to go faster than the speed of sound in the Bell X-1 rocket plane as a boy and dreamed of becoming a test pilot. I admired his life of adventure and his pursuit of speed. And now he, like so many others, is gone. He lived an incredibly full life and died only after reaching the age of 97, so the sadness of his passing is not unnatural. The time had come for him to die. It will come for each of us.

Riding off into the sunset is a cliche, born of the cowboy movies of my childhood and others before my time. The hero would conquer the forces of evil and then, at the end of the movie, a dramatic scene would show the cowboy riding off into the sunset. I’ve been told that the last scene was usually a low budget shot, with many movies being made in California, on the west coast, where sunsets were dramatic. The profile of the cowboy on the horse backlit by the bright son made the iconic shot easy and inexpensive to film.

So, it is interesting to note that my retirement has involved my literally driving off into the sunset. I’ve come to the most western residence of my life. We’re a whole hour later than the mountain time where I’ve lived most of my life. And I’ve moved more than an hour in actual time because Rapid City was at the eastern edge of the time zone. Adding to the drama is the season of the year when we moved. Late fall means that we are approaching the shortest day of the year. Add to that the fact that I moved not only west, but also north, where the days are even shorter, and sunset comes at 4:14 today - barely time for the kids to get off of the school bus, if there were buses running, which aren’t due to the pandemic.

Here I am, nearly on the west coast of the country, within a few miles of the northern border. I need to hone my appreciation for sunsets. This is sunset country.

Of course we have beautiful sunrises here. And you don’t have to get up all that early to watch the sun come up less than 10 minutes before 8 am. The problem, so far, is that we haven’t had many clear days and even when it is clear above, the fog seems to nest at the face of the Cascades to the east so that the first rays of sunlight are filtered through cloud almost every day. One of these days, I’m sure, I’ll catch a dramatic sunrise over the gorgeous peaks to the east, but I may have to wait until summer.

Learning to appreciate the sunset may be a theme for my learning to live in retirement. The pace is different. There are fewer deadlines. My days are busy and full and I have found a lot of things to do. I have a list of tasks for today that will keep me going until I’m good and tired at the end of the day. However, there will be plenty of time to take a walk and appreciate the sunset. Yesterday’s walk yielded a golden sunset over the Skagit River well before dinnertime.

Maybe old ministers, like the cowboys in the movies, occasionally get to ride off into the sunset. It’s not a bad direction to be heading.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!