Adventures from Back of Beyond

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Full Moonrise

Full moons are special to me. Like sunrise, I make it a point whenever I can to watch the exact moment when the full moon rises over the horizon.

Full moons are more than just visually stimulating for many reasons. Consider the so-called "full moon illusion", wherein the disc of the full moon appears far larger when it rises close to the horizon. Near the horizon, there are terrestrial landmarks for comparison. When it's farther overhead the full moon looks smaller set against a background of ethereal stars.

Consider also all sorts of strange things that happen under full moons. Just ask you local police department. Or werewolf.

Then of course full moons always rise, by definition, at sunset. Never any other time of day. And sunset, along with sunrise, are special times of day, when the worlds of the night and day briefly merge, coincide, and combine.

Full moons also a significant mileposts for the limited amount of time we get to spend on this earth.

If you live to be 75 years old, you will live for about 900 full moons. Of those, you may get to see -- weather and your personal schedule permitting -- maybe around 10% of those. So if you're lucky you may get to witness around 90 full moonrises. I'd guess for most people it's probably far less than 90.

Full moon rises are, for me, memorable, and especially when experienced in an area of significant natural beauty. As I watch a full moon rise, I try to recall where I was for the last full moon. And try to imagine where I'll be for the next full moon. And what might happen, the great possibilities, between now and then.

One of my most memorable full moon rises was a serendipitous event. There was no plan, I just happened to be there. This was in San Diego, riding bikes with big Jim Aarts, from Boulder CO. I was maybe 24 years old. We were returning to our neighborhood in East San Diego from Balboa Park, after enjoying an afternoon there. One of the world's great parks, but that's another story.

I didn't have a camera with me to record that moment, and it's just as well. No photo could have ever captured that scene. My memory is vividly detailed for that moment, and serves me much better than any photo.

Anyway, as we rode east, there was this great big orange full moon rising over the horizon. The air was dry and clear which lent itself to a great view. It was magical ... the combination of the warm evening weather, the fun of riding bikes in the company of my buddy, and the impressive visual spectacle of the giant full moon rise. That's when I started to make a point of watching full moon rises, because it was such a special experience.

Another very memorable full moon rise for me was sitting on the rim of the Grand Canyon with a beautiful girl at my side. During my 20s, when I worked at Grand Canyon National Park, I would try to watch as many full moonrises over the Canyon as possible.

This particular one was sitting at Yaqui Point, which has straight down dropoffs of 500 feet or more. Certain death if one was to fall at that point. We sat close to one another on the rim, feet dangling literally over thin air, the river about a mile below. As we enjoyed the colorful sunset on our left, the full moon began to rise on our right, over the Painted Desert and the Palisades of the Desert, on the Canyon's far east rim. I chose that exact moment for a first kiss. It was romantic and memorable for me, still today. I was lucky I didn't swoon and fall in.

Yesterday's full moon rise will be for me another memorable experience. It was a surreal because the air quality yesterday was very special. The air had an ineffeble light, noticable all day. In early January the sunlight slants low anyway, so the sun had the effect of sidelighting everything, and especially so at sunset.

The air was crystalline yesterday, so clear there wasn't a hint of brown pollution or even water vapor all the way to the horizon. Arizona is special that way, it's natural lighting that is. No other place I've ever experienced can match the unique aesthetics of Arizona light.

We were driving on a slow, windy, two-lane road over a mountain on a highway that's been designated one of the most scenic in the United States. And probably the world I might add. It's that good. The views are stunning, but yesterday what we saw with the exquisite lighting was absolutely unbelievable.

We started off this drive by spotting a large bird, which we like to pay particular attention to anyway. This wasn't a common raven, or even a hawk. It flew almost directly over our car as we drove, and fairly low, so we got a very good look and positive identification with the stark white head and tail, and dark body. This was a rare desert bald eagle. A few of these magnificent birds live along the Verde River, where they can find fish, but this eagle was a good 20 air miles from the river. I imagined this particular bird was winging his or her way back home from a long day of foraging.

Then we spotted a herd of pronghorn antelope in the grasslands, a good size group of maybe 25-30 animals. North America's fastest land mammals, capable or reaching and sustaining speeds of 55-60 mph. Another unusual moment.

We continued in awe. The low January sun that was illuminating natural features in remarkable ways-- cliffs, rock faces, canyons -- features that we normally passed without a second thought. We saw colors we didn't normally see, like a sheer high basalt cliff above us glowing green with lichen. It was amazing.

Then, to top it off, as we crested the pass and began our descent -- voila -- almost like it was planned, which it wasn't, here was a great silver disc of the full moon, perfectly round, beginning it's ascent over the red rocks of Sedona. Not an orange or yellow full moon rising, common in polluted air of cities, but a clean silver, even as it rose above the cliffs. The air was electric pure and sparkling, from zenith to horizon.

This particular view has to rank right up there with some of the world's most spectacular scenes anyway, anytime. You overlook scores of miles of the eroded flank of the great uplifted Colorado Plateau. The half-mile high cliffs are colorful with flat rock layers that basically comprise the same rocks as the upper half of the walls of the Grand Canyon.

Beyond those cliffs rose surrealistically the majestic San Francisco Peaks, symmetrical and snow-capped, the highest point in the state of Arizona at 12,630 feet. Several other stratovolcanoes also pierced the horizon in this superb panorama. The air was so clear and shimmering we could see details of Sitgreaves and Kendrick Mountains as well.

This drive weaves slowly through canyons, beginning with Yeager Canyon, cresting the Mingus pass at around 7,000 feet, and descends through the visually stunning Hull Canyon into the ghost city of Jerome, which as its entered from this direction, appears as if it's suspended in mid air, hanging thousands of feet over the Verde Valley below.

We didn't have a camera to capture the moment digitally. Just as well.