Where Earth Meets Sky

From our Colorado breakfast table, I can look off to the north where the front edge of the Foothills drops down to the plains and to the west where they rise abruptly from the end of our street. From our yard, I can see the tops of the two table mountains, mesas that frame Golden on the east. Living in a bowl near the creek that defines the area’s low point, we know that the horizon is never far away. Sunrise arrives later in the morning here and sunset happens in late afternoon.

In contrast, I grew up and lived, mostly, in places where the horizon was far away. Our part of Texas had some hills, but seemed to have more sky than earth. In Oklahoma, the horizon was off as far as you could see, with no relief in sight.

After college in Oklahoma, we went to Europe for a couple of months before I started my job on the Navajo Reservation in Winslow, Arizona. We had never been there. In fact, no one we knew had ever been to Winslow, but we made arrangements to move the week we got back. In our absence, my father polled all his friends and found someone whose car had once broken down there, enroute to California, and he reported that it was pleasant place amid the mountain pine forests. Pre-google, that was about all the information we had.

Back from Europe, we headed our loaded car west on Route 66, a long flat ride. Just west of Gallup, we began to watch for the mountains and, sure enough, a prominent peak gradually appeared due west, over the horizon. We checked the maps and eyed distances skeptically, but could only proceed. The miles ticked off. But the mountain stayed too far away. Of course, what we were seeing was the San Francisco Peaks at Flagstaff, fifty or more miles west of Winslow. As the desert dragged on and Winslow became closer and closer, we watched with a growing despair. It turned out that Winslow was in the midst of a flat high desert, surrounded by sand, rabbit brush and sage. Not a tree in sight. (We later learned my father’s friend had been thinking about Williams, Arizona, not Winslow.)

On that drive, I could relate to the despair that wagon trains on the old Oregon Trail must have felt watching the western horizon fade away further west as they and their animals plodded along. Or, Zebulon Pike attempting and failing to reach Pikes Peak, as every step forward seemed to push his goal further away. It seemed so close. Coming up the Arkansas River from the east, he and his men tried to reach the peak hanging just on the horizon, but every step closer showed more obstacles in the yawning distance.

Where we lived in Northern Arizona was relatively flat and open, but to the south was the magnificent Mogollon Rim where you could feel that you were on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The horizon was far away. The surrounding desert was spotted with volcanic buttes, allowed spectacular distant views from any high point, and I used to watch distant rainstorms and huge dust devils crawl across the land at a snail’s pace. The Navajo traditionally identified their land as bounded by four easily-visible sacred mountains: Mount Blanco to the east; Mount Taylor to the south; San Francisco Peaks to the west; and Mount Hesperus to the north.

Later, when I lived in Atlanta, the trees curtailed any view of the horizon, and the humidity rendered any distant view a hazy gray anyway. Alternately, in the cold, dry air of Alaska, I saw the flats of the North Slope stretch immeasurable distances framed by the Arctic Ocean on the north and the Brooks Range to the south; it felt like the land was tilting towards the north pole and you might slide right off the horizon. From a hi-rise apartment In Chicago, I could watch thunderstorms blow into the city across the plains and at night watch wicked lightning strike the tallest buildings. 

Several times I have gotten seasick when out fishing on the ocean, and was advised to watch the horizon, not the boat. For a normal person, the horizon at sea is about three miles away. Hence the need for a crow’s nest on the old sailing ships; the higher elevation of the watcher extended the distance to the horizon and beyond.  Of course, the top of the mast sways constantly, and I imagine that would cause sea sickness for even the hardiest tar (look out below!).  Early seafarers could see the far horizon and could see the curvature, as well. It’s not hard to think that they could ignore the curve of the horizon, but see it as an edge with nothing beyond.

I knew someone whose field of study was perception and he claimed that eyesight was related to thinking. Far-sighted people tended to think more broadly, bigger picture; near-sighted people were more focused and detail-oriented. I suppose the distance to the horizons where you live could affect your perspective, but I wonder if wearing glasses changes the way you think?

I suppose I could attribute my lack of detail orientation to my Texas upbringing and all my time spent in the west — Arizona, Alaska, Oklahoma and Colorado. Blame it on the horizon.

May you never reach your life’s horizons, but always seek them.

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