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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Where the Sun Goes

I went back to Sunset Rock today, this time on the Internet, and it prompted me to tell my story again.

Our trip to Sequoia National Park was in the fall of 1972 as I recall. Wally and I had built a house in Laguna Beach and stretched our resources thin. Still, the urge we always felt to get out in the wilds pulled on us. Children were back in school. Ours had flown the nest, one left in college back east. A good time to take a vacation away from the madding crowd. 

“We could pack up the Volksie with our pup tent and sleeping bags, Wally.” I’d sat down in his home office to chat. “Make it a five day vacation with two days of travel time up and back and three days to drive around the park and sleep in the tent. It would do us good.” I didn’t need to sell him. He looked out the window before responding. He’d no doubt been thinking along those lines before I mentioned it. “I suppose it wouldn’t cost much that way,” he said. Wally was always conscious of the cost of things, especially after house building and starting to live on his retired pay.

The drive up from Laguna Beach only takes about four and half hours, but we didn’t hurry. It was just good to get out on the road again. We started out in the dark, early enough to beat the commuter traffic around the Los Angeles freeways. Somewhere north of L.A. we pulled off to the side of the road along a stretch of desert to watch the sun come up. After that we locked the car doors and stayed to take a little snooze. Packing up the night before and then leaving so early, both of us were pooped. 

It was an easy trip though. We arrived in mid afternoon. We’d been to the park before and loved the giant sequoias. We took our time stopping to look at them, stand in awe of them, touch them, feel the reverence of being near such ancient living wonders. Later on our way to the camp ground I saw a sign on the side of the road that said SUNSET ROCK.

 “Oh, Wally, it’s nearly time for the sun to set. Can’t we stop to watch the sunset?” Without a word he slowed down and turned into the road by the sign. When we’d parked and walked the short distance to the rock I saw that it was not a protruding sort of rock but a huge built-into-the-hill kind that offered space to sit for dozens of people. But no one else was there. Just the two of us.

When I saw we were alone I could have snuggled up next to my dear hubby and watched the sun go down with him. It might have been a romantic time. I would have too except that for some reason I saw our solitude as even more special than the two of us. “Let’s sit apart from each other, Wally. Somehow I feel so inspired here I think we might each enjoy it in our own way without talking.”

Wally was in a similar mood apparently. The absence of people made it seem like we’d stepped back in time, even into prehistoric time.The air was crisply cool, but there was no wind and the place seemed silent and sacred. I smiled at Wally sitting about 30 feet from me. He’d been so compliant this trip. Not at all like he used to be when we made our way across the country from one tour of duty to another with the US Marine Corps.  Then I turned my attention to the sun. It still hovered above the horizon and was too bright to look at directly. Out beyond where it would be setting lay a thin stretch of haze along the horizon. In front of us the hills spread in pristine shades of green and browns. I looked but couldn’t see a single sign of civilization. It was as if this place had escaped humanity’s footprint. Not a road, a cabin, a telephone pole. Just the stillness of a fall day like all the rest of the days the place had known since time immemorial. How many sunsets this rock had seen! 

And the one we were about to see, what would it be like? Not one of those spectacular sunsets I’d seen with a canopy of clouds catching all the shades of red and gold. I wondered what it would look like when it reached the horizon. What would be that something special I felt we were in store for? 

As the sun got lower I wondered how the haze on the horizon would affect it and slowly I saw. The brilliant white orb began to change color. It became orange with horizontal dark streaks across it Japanese lantern style. As it sunk a distant hill took a bite out of it. Then it was as if the sun let go and spilled out its blood becoming shapeless. Dark blobs appeared on its redness and the hazy horizon spread the paint across the landscape. At last the glowing orb slid down and disappeared into one tiny brilliant white flash of light as if it were bidding us goodbye. 

At that moment, that tiny bright light, so similar to the ones that used to flash when we’d turn off our first television set, began to tell me something. It said, “Don’t be disappointed, my friend. I didn’t suffer one little bit when I got sick and died. See? I’m still as white and bright as I was at noonday. I haven’t changed at all even though you saw me disintegrate. You watched it all and I know you thought I was beautiful even then. You didn’t think of those sunset symptoms as some sort of horrible disease that sent me out of your life. I know you’re not grieving for me.”

It was as clear a message as if spoken in those very words. I looked over at Wally. He was still sitting there staring out over the horizon. Then I thought of the sun again and remembered how that morning we’d watched it come up over the desert. One tiny bright white flame broke through the warm red radiance blanketing the landscape. The brilliance of it grew, the shape of it grew, and the glorious orb of white we all know so well forbade us to stare at it anymore. 

The same sun. Hello and goodbye. Yet all the while we’d watched it being “born” and later go through the agony of “sickness and death” not a thing about the sun had changed, even for a moment. What’s more the sun had not risen or set. The phenomena of sunrise and sunset were the result of the earth’s motion and our earth-bound view of it. We gave it birth and we gave it death, names we’d never call them because we know it’s an illusion both times. Our limited views had caused us to see a limited span of life, one sunny day.

I’ve never forgotten that day’s lesson. It showed me how arrogant we are to think that all there is to true being is what we see of it in human form. We are no more in the short span of a human life than the sun is in a daytime. We see only what we can understand at this moment and much of that is educated guesswork. When the ego is lifted up we’ll get a better view and eventually, like the sun, see ourselves and others from a higher point of view where there is no night. Scientists say that the universe is filled with invisible light and we know only a tiny fraction of it as yet. Gives us something to think about, doesn’t it?

Some fifteen years later my husband passed out of my sight. That time at Sunset Rock helped me to see past the grief, helped to comfort me, and as I write I wonder if Wally is waiting somewhere along a desert road to greet me as I come over the horizon one morning. If so, we won’t be silent. We’ll have lots to talk about!  


  1. Great story, Mom! Wonder if one can even get to Sunset Rock these days? Here's a video of a C-130 with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) loaded on board. I used to manage the budget for these planes and their crews and equipment when I worked at the Pentagon. The MAFFS not only dumps fire retardant, but a special grass seed that can survive the heat and quickly germinate to help prevent erosion. The pilots are so low to the ground, you'll hear an audible voice warning them about their Landing Gear not being down! Some of those warnings cannot be turned off or silenced...for good reasons! Just copy this link and then paste it into your browser's Universal Resource Locator (URL) also called an address window. You'll hear the bigger plane being led in by a smaller plane with the airborne "Fire Boss" on board. He has a little smoke spotter trail that he leaves to guide the big plane in right where he wants it.
    Copy this link:

  2. Wow, Grandma. You described imagery too beautiful for my limited vocabulary to even comment on. I can't say I'm "there yet" with grasping the idea of life being yet a temporary human experience, but the thought is comforting and settling to imagine no 'human sunsets'.

    I loved the detail in which you recounted the beauty of nature. :)


  3. I may have just now accidentally deleted my reply to your comment, Erin. Just wrote to say how you inspire me to keep writing. You are a sweetheart and I love you! Grandma XO