People experience awe in very different ways. One person’s exhilarating glimpse of something infinitely grand can be another’s nightmare, to be denied, even exiled from consciousness.
This happened some years ago, before the ubiquity of smartphones. It was dawn, the midsummer sun not yet risen, as I sailed with a friend out of Neah Bay, the small native American township at the northwest tip of the United States. I stood at the helm as my companion huddled over charts down in the cabin, plotting our course across the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca where it opens up into the Pacific. The sea was cutting short and choppy as the incoming ocean swell came up against the outflow of the strait, but I was suffused with a feeling of calm. We were the only boat in sight, the only sounds the water against the hull and an occasional flap of the sail. The world, at that moment, was perfect. And then it became more so.
The sun began to rise over the mountains to the east – a large, fuzzy sun, the color of a white daffodil. Mesmerized by its slow ascent, I waited for the moment when it would detach itself from the mountain ridges and assume a perfect, independent roundness. Except it didn’t. Just when I expected to see clear sky between sun and mountains, there seemed instead to be something beneath the sun, pushing it upward, and I realized that there were now two suns rising — two suns of equal size, conjoined, one on top of the other. “A sun dog!” I shouted.
My friend came running up from below, took one look, and froze. “That shouldn’t be happening. That can’t be happening,” he shouted, adamantly refusing to believe the testimony of his own eyes. “That’s impossible!”
I tried to tell him that somewhere, some time, I had read an account of just such a twinned sunrise (in a novel? a short story? I’ve searched since, but never been able to find it again). But he’d have none of it. Instead, he scrambled down to the cabin to bring up an armful of meteorology books, and with his back resolutely set to the splendor of the sky behind him, started leafing frantically through them. “See!” he said, jabbing at a page. “It can’t be a sun dog. A sun dog is a parhelion, a much smaller mock sun, and they come in pairs, at an angle to the real sun. Not this… this abomination!”
Abomination? I’d never expected to hear that biblical word from this eminently rational intellectual – a pastor’s son turned insistent atheist. “Can’t you see?” he wailed. “Something awful is happening, against all the laws of nature.” I’m not a hundred percent sure if he used the phrase “end of the world” — surely not, though it seems to me he did, and he trembled as though some form of apocalypse was in progress.
I admit I was no help. “Just look!” I kept saying. But he only dashed back down into the cabin for shelter from the sky, leaving me alone to watch as it became still more extraordinary. The lower sun assumed a deeper color and more definite form as it rose, and as the upper one faded, a thick pillar of white light took shape between the remaining sun – the real sun — and the mountaintops. It occurred to me that it may have been as well that my friend was below deck: a pillar of light was so damn biblical. And then that in turn gave way to a huge double rainbow in an ellipse around the risen sun, and I could only stand there shaking my head and laughing, tears in my eyes, knowing that I would never again witness a sunrise as stunningly eerie and beautiful and grand as this. Not even my companion’s panic could change that.
Long after that friendship’s inevitable dissolution, I occasionally searched meteorology sites online. My companion had been right in that most sun dogs are indeed much smaller images at an angle to the sun, but I did eventually find a couple of photographs of two suns, even if not quite conjoined, and horizontal rather than vertical. I also found explanations of how the acutely angled light of the sun is refracted when layers of ice crystals form barely visible low-lying fog in the chill early-morning air, acting as a kind of mirror. I could now explain how come I’d seen what I saw. And yet the explanation did nothing to diminish the splendor of the memory. Or the experience of pure wonder. Or the knowledge that what had delighted me, had terrified another.