My father by some unknown power managed to drive 11 hours straight through the night last night while I slept fitfully in the back of the truck. He turned the keys over to me shortly after 6 am local time, just east of Billings. This, my friends, presented me with a glorious treasure. A sapphire so blue that you stare into it until you lose your mind. A sunrise on a cloudless Montana morning. Pure, graceful beauty.
For a space between Billings proper and the outskirts of mention there is emptiness. No lights brighten the road. A few souls flew past to open some store for the future souls who need stores open before their 9-5s begin. A couple of truckers were also on the road. Likely team drivers who do not need to lie about sleep in a log book. My body had long since grown numb to the bumps and bustles of the road beneath the tires turning steadily homeward. In the darkness I might as well have been flying through space in a hover car, a rocket ship, the vehicle of the future. And there on the horizon out of the darkness is an alien constellation. Lights that would outshine the sun surrounded in clouds of mystery and wonder. Mist threading here and there between stacks and domes with a few torches, flames for dramatic effect. These brilliant gems, Montana People’s Power and Light, Conoco Phillips, and Exxon Mobil. A coal fired power plant churning all night to fuel a pair of refineries which not only burn but also process the midnight oil. An ethereal dream, wrapped in wisps of steam. This is the lifeblood of Montana. This is a steady stream of income for a populous. This is the beauty of production. But I can only hold the lights for a few moments. The darkness swallows even those lights whole as I churn eastward.
A first for me. A wolf hit by the car on the side of the road. “Good dog. It’s a little chilly at 17 degrees but I know you will be quite comfortable in that ditch.” There is a season for wolves in Montana as in Idaho. One state to the east, and my next destination, has no such privileges. The sun will crest the hills mere moments before I breech the state border but I do not know this yet.
I am flying quickly through the darkness as dotted lines tick under my tires. But there is a change in the inky black. I sense it. A Painter is on the prowl. Somewhere in the black, a black tipped tail twitches. The tawny lion, the dawn is hunting. Swiftly and silently it is coming, diligent to its purpose. So many fools wandering now are unaware of its coming. It will take them before they know it. But I am awake and keen to watch the sun approach.
The first signs of an as yet non-existent light come in the faint outline of what might be a horizon. If asked, even if hard pressed, both sky and land are as black as black can possibly be. But somewhere in the distance, where the edges of the earth reach toward the infinite, a black is slipping in to blue. The stars still shine with all the brilliance and honor the million year journey of light deserves. Punctuation marks across an otherwise immutable glass ceiling of darkness. No, the next shift toward a lighted heaven is hinted at on earth. Each pond, puddle, lake and lagoon is gathering up every stray ray of the infantile dawn and reflecting it to any being that will see. In the black on black the name for this color is shimmer. Crayola has yet to dissolve it into a 4 part formula in wax and I hope they never shall. Hiding in the havens of shimmer are small black forms in comfortable, irregular clumps. Waterfowl, hoteling. They are headed homeward south as I press towards the east. And then as at the ends of the world black shapes start to appear against the black earth, silhouettes on silhouettes. Here there are forms of beasts, cattle. There the forms of bales, hay.
And there to the east is a change in shade. Out of the blackness, the colors of the rainbow spread from ceiling to floor but in muted charcoal tones. These are not quite colors. There is a hint of yellow, perhaps green. But no it is just grey I suppose. Is that pink on the horizon? I think so, but no…it is only more grey. This continues for an odd hour or more. Black gives way to pale pastel in ever lightening washes of grey without becoming something of a complete color. No color you would stake a dollar on at any rate.
Somewhere in between the not quite indigo and essence of blue the stars wink out one by one. The almost shades of rainbow are drifting upwards, westwards around the dome. To one ill experienced with a nascent sun or more comfortable with the close of day this might seem to signal a new wave of brilliance, for is not a sun rise merely the opposite of a sunset? But this has never been the case. An aged day is cocky, flamboyant. Raging mad with sparks of color to highlight the insanity as the sun plunges towards another death. Purples intermingle with oranges and gold shines out with neon flare against preposterously pink clouds. And even as the sun struggles downwards it thrusts out final rays in hopes it will not be forgotten. But as an infant the day comes wrapped in layers tenderness. The soft shades of new skin. Pink lines the edges of the buttes for a time and you sense that the sun when it first appears must certainly be pink. Imagine the disappointment then when colors never actually appear. Pink slides softly out of existence, kissing the contours of the hills at your back before disappearing completely.
As yet there is no sun but the sky is full light and it seems so too is the earth. From black on black into light on light, for all of creation is covered in snow. This color too is best described as shimmer and again it is dotted with dark forms. However, these are the black bodies of range cattle. The plod onward in whichever direction their whims take them. They graze, then they wander, then they pause to chew, and all the while they praise their Creator for their darkness as they soak up any light that reaches them. All heat is precious when the air hovers near single digits.
To my right I spy a pack of wolves. They are running in a line and like me they are pointed towards the east. This part of the country is much more open than the one I left 12 hours earlier. These wolves are in season and exposed. And so they are on the move. They are less than a handful of miles from the neighboring state where they are still protected and this is where they are bound with all haste. Their feet are faster than mine, but they are no match for the speed of my tires and they are out of sight in seconds. I catch a glimpse of a sentry prairie dog searching the new day for something to fear. His wish will be granted in 5 minutes or so when the wolves pass through his village.
I can see Wyoming’s welcome sign in the distance. Then suddenly I can see nothing but light. The sun has finally scaled the hills and is present in full glory. A ball of fire that cannot warm the day soon enough. Though momentarily blinded the sun has also revealed a danger I’d not paused to consider. The asphalt leading me eastward is coated in a shine of black ice. I ease off the accelerator and slow to what I consider a reasonable speed. I am passed frequently, but then I watch the hasty slide as they cross bridges at wrong angles and I am reassured that my pace is perfect. It will be another hour before I drift above 51 and then only once behind an ash truck. Miles tick off more slowly but also more safely and I am content.