Essay: Incomprehensible Beauty (Yakutat, Alaska)

First posted in October, 2003

This place has been an absolute stream of amazingly beautiful images since I left the gym yesterday evening. The sky cleared once again in the midst of what has been the most bizarre rainy season ever, and on my way home, St. Elias rose out from among the cumulus clouds that still clung to the horizon. This mountain is always impressive, a nearly perfect pyramid as viewed from Yakutat, the third tallest peak on the continent, second in Alaska only to Denali. But it seemed even larger last night with the gentle touch of alpenglow on its face. The sun was making a quick descent in the sky, and so I rushed down to the beach where I could get the best view. Well, I intended to rush, but I was stalled along the way by a number of other beautiful diversions... a gnarled, stunted tree's reflection in a muskeg pond, the gentle sway of grass in the current of Tawah Creek, the advection fog slowly smothering the fields. As I pulled out onto the sand, there was but one fierce streak of orange left hanging in the sky, reflected across the sheen on the beach left by the outgoing tide. I watched the play of that light across the crests of the surf, mingled with the shadows of the crashing waves. I enjoyed sound of the sea mixed with the warm laughter of small children running about, and watched the bounce in the blonde curls of an adorable young girl as she played among the various pieces of driftwood.

The sun set. Dusk fell. I drove back home, sure that the show was complete.

I was wrong. In short order the moon rose to fill the void, a waxing full moon so bright it overpowered nearly every nearby star. Clouds crept back into view, but not so thick as to obscure the moon's glow, and it was very pleasant to stand out in the cool evening air watching the craters and mountains on the moon's surface fade and reappear as it backlit the weather that was moving in. I found my way back into the house, to my room, and opened the blinds there. For quite some time I rested in the warmth of new flannel sheets and down comforter, watching the moonlit shadows of branches play in the wind before finally drifting off to sleep. I woke before the alarm, the moonlight gone, the strength of the stars renewed in the predawn darkness.

And the sun rose. The day began. I made coffee, sure that the show was complete.

Again I was mistaken. A warm yellow light crept through the alders to the east, slowly coloring the white of the mountains to the north. In the opposite direction, out over the ocean, an ominous darkness was moving in. I found my camera and meandered about, trying to capture the light. I failed miserably. I don't think it's meant to be captured, I think it's merely meant to be experienced. And so with a sigh I placed the camera down and headed out the door for work.

And that's when I saw the rainbow, so tall that it practically lacked any arch as it climbed into the sky. As I drove toward town, it slowly began to grow shorter, curving, the peak of it descending out of the clouds, the colors in it growing more vibrant. I stopped for a brevé, my treat for a week hard at work in the gym, and made my way to the visitor center, where a number of people were standing in the parking lot, transfixed by the rainbow whose reflection was visible in the calm, protected waters of Monti Bay. As I sat in my office, looking out over the water and finishing the best coffee I have had in perhaps a month, I watched the rainbow fade into nothingness.

And the clouds have moved in completely. The morning is nearly over, and I'm wondering if the show is complete.