The alarm was set for 6:45. The previous day had been complete with freezing temperatures, too much wind, traveling by car, looking for bears, hiking and shivering, and being up for far too long; so the idea of getting up at 6:45 was met with general distaste. Neither of us believed we would be able to pull it off, so we promised one another to do the bare minimal. We would get up, we would put on warm clothing, we would make coffee and we would leave. That was it. No need to brush our teeth or shower, no need for breakfast, this would be a quick outing.
Yet when the alarm went off, we woke to our still-dark room and wondered if perhaps we had more time to sleep. But stubborn determination is my key component so we were out of bed soon enough to pull on layers of clothing and poor too much sugar into hot coffees.
When we stepped out of our tiny, cabin-like room at Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park, we were greeted by a mysterious world. Everything was gray, and gone were the views to the valley below. At first, I assumed we were experiencing fog, but then I saw the grayness take shape and move quickly like racing ghosts, running across the lawn and into the parking area as if being chased by the oncoming day. This wasn’t fog. We were in a cloud.
Rushing now, we went to the car and dove inside. There was a biting wind that made us quiver in our sweatshirts and I rushed to get the heat turned on. It was only the start of October in Virginia, a time when we often still saw 80+ degree temperatures during the day, but this was the first true taste of autumn and we hadn’t come very prepared. Meanwhile, the clouds chased each other across the parking lot and the other lodge rooms and cabins were behind the curtain it created. We inched along in the car, scanning for any possible animals as the dense cloud only bounced our headlights back at us, and turned onto Skyline Drive.
It was a short drive to reach Thorofare Mountain outlook. The general distractions of Skyline Drive–the trees, the flowers, the animals–were all taken away by the cloud cover. Then we reached the opening of the overlook. You knew it was coming simply by looking at the brightness up ahead and then, suddenly, the cloud cover disappeared and we were out in the open.
Parking among a number of other cars facing directly towards the sun, we climbed out of our cars and immediately felt the strength of the wind on our backs. Around us, the mountain climbed and the cloud cover bent over the rock and tree structure, curling as it did in a respectful bow, before it went running towards the coming light.
And to the east was the lingering line of color. The reds and golds giving the earth and sky more distinction; the clouds tripping over themselves as they fell forward into the valley, dark and fast; the still rolling hills of Shenandoah that seemed to be holding its breath as if preparing for the day; the breakthrough of birds every now and again.
I ran to the back of my car and pulled free my heavy, thick blanket I crocheted when I first moved to Virginia. Wrapping myself in it, I returned to the edge of the outlook and climbed onto the rock wall, my sneakers at the very edge of the descent. “Come, come up!” I called back to my fiance who joined me. “It’s starting!”
And sure enough, it was. The sun began to peak over the horizon and the car doors flew open as all those who had stayed in the warmth of their car–in a location they could have just as easily saw the sunrise themselves–also felt that they had to be fully outdoors to experience it.
What is so slow about sunrise is the quiet time before it arrives. That peaceful, cautious, brightening of the world where contrast returns to shapes and everything begins to wake. But what the poets fail to mention is that the moment the sun begins to climb over the horizon, it’s a quick race to get above it all. The sun is an eager star. It reaches its arms wide to embrace the expansion of the earth and us mere mortals can only stand on the side of a mountain to greet it back with smiles and squinting gazes.
It charges over the land like the mass of fire that it is, causing everything to glow with a warm, pink hue that turns orange and eventually yellow. And we stood there, all of us sun worshipers, and tossed aside all warnings to protect our eyes as we stared directly into the light.
I felt the air caught in my throat as I looked east and felt the sun just begin to gently touch my skin, to take away some of that freezing chill. “We’re alive,” I admitted, looking at my fiance briefly. “For all that’s going on in the world, for all that’s so horrible, we’re still alive. We’re here and we’re alive.”
When facing the glorious morning, the promise of a new day, the idea that all the faults of yesterday are simply yesterday, it’s easy to wax poetic. But the dazzling appearance wasn’t the end of it all. As we turned to go we realized that the mountains still shaded had reverted to their renowned blue, coating the area in a fantasy-like feel. We had been there the day before mid-day and everything had been so regular, so normal, but this…this was an entirely new world. A new perspective that if you tried hard enough, you could see, much like with everything else. It didn’t take long for that dazzling dawn to turn into a bright sunny day, for tourists to arrive, for the late sleepers of the lodge to begin stirring. Still frozen, we hunched over eggs and bacon with steaming cups of coffee next to a hot fire and smiled at one another. “That was perfect. Even if we had to get up so early,” my fiance teased. “It was the best thing, ” I replied, grinning as I reached for my fork.