Sunrise, Sunset: Outdoors at Light's Edges
All light isn't the same, not in the early hours of morning or when the day recedes and lets the night take over for awhile. For anyone who has endured early wake ups to meander up a trail or down a mountain in the dark after a long day, the results of these unusual times outside can be spectacular. At times, it can be transcendent, as the sharp lines of day and night offer up a fleeting but glorious pallet of color and imagery which goes mostly unseen. But for those who do manage this view, they never forget it.
Commuting to work on a long highway as the sun comes up is a nice diversion, a brief respite for the hours of normalcy (or not) to come, but it's not the same. Surrounded by other drivers or alone, the buffer of the modern world still keeps us at bay, while the radio or simple hum of the vehicle's motor filtering an otherwise pure experience. And that's okay. Going to and from a job and getting to see nature's glory on the way is still something in which to take some measure of joy. But to see this in the outdoors is another experience entirely, without the noise of our world getting in the way, perhaps with one's heart beating from a scramble up a ridge or with toes submerged in beach sand and cold surf, sensations serving to connect us more with our natural world than anything else.
The overwhelming lack of sound is a singular and unique aspect to being outdoors at predawn hours, a sensation one can get in much less dramatic form at sunset, although it depends on where one roams. Mountains are generally lightly trafficked in the very early and late times of the day for obvious reasons--it's tough to see and most casual outdoors people want it to be as ideal as possible for a good experience. And there's nothing at all wrong with that; when I arrive at a summit with lots of people on a nice day I feel encouraged people still want to get out in fairly large numbers. I am not an outdoors elitist in any way when it comes to participation. The more, the merrier (provided the droves arrive and leave with respect to their surroundings).
One analogy consistent for me to understand the wonderful feeling of being alone in the early or late outdoors is having children. If you've ever had kids, you know your free time (especially early on) is virtually gone during any waking hours and it often feels like the most mundane and pedestrian of tasks offer some liberation from parental servitude (bathroom visits, grocery shopping, you know the list). Any parent who gets up before his or her kids in the morning understands the peace felt by just being alone in quiet for even an hour or less. The problem is most parents simply will grab sleep whenever they can and thus any quiet time in the morning easily gets used up by dozing before kids get the day rolling for good. Being outdoors mirrors this experience in many ways. You are there before anyone else and can enjoy some semblance of silence. Add the visuals you'll encounter at this time and you have a very nice morning or late evening.
The other motivating component to get outside during early or late hours is visual, to witness the quiet majesty one gets when being out at these times of day. Any photographer knows the early and late hours of the day are magical in their lines and clarity, offering a window of near perfection during which to capture imagery unavailable during regular daytime sessions. It's no different for anyone without a camera, as the sights and sounds unleash a crispness of sensory wonderment you won't see at any other time of day. Horizons are sharper, as the most intense lines of dark and light trade roles as dawn turns into sunrise then into a bright day. The other end offers breathtaking cloud arrangements which can act like paint strokes, especially if seen near an ocean or large lake. The summit of a mountain is a breathtaking mirage of color and contours, giving climbers a view unlike anything else to be seen that day.
The process necessary to see these sights does not come without effort. Even if you're a "morning person" (an acquired quality in my view) it's still tempting to roll back over in bed on any given early morning and tell yourself you'll go back "next time". This goes double if it's winter. It's dark. It's cold. The power of a warm bed is very real. If you can get past those few minutes of temptation, you'll be fine. For any sunrise hike, you're climbing in the dark for much of the way going up. This means an ascent devoid of many sights and requiring the use of a headlamp along with extra layers during colder months. But once on top, the payoff is huge, with a descent that is illuminated and less taxing. The other end of the day offers the opposite--a bevy of views en route to the top, a spectacular experience at the summit but a dark descent and one which can prove tough given you may lack the energy you had going up and often this can be a trudge back to your vehicle or campsite.
My preference is the sunrise, simply because it starts the day off with great scenery and a vigorous workout. The beach doesn't require this kind of effort but also gives less visual variety despite its beauty. If you're taking photos you may find the best shots are not necessarily the sunrise itself (although make sure you grab at least two or three of those) but the unexpected pictures, ones where the light hits a certain object in a unique way or the trees or sand give the scene an entirely varied take than normal.
These are the shots you will likely be most enamored with even after the journey ends and reflect captured moments truly your own and not the same as something you will see on any outdoor calendar or website. Sunrise shots are common no matter how beautiful, but the offbeat pictures you get along the way are the real goldmine for any outdoor adventure at these times.
Being outdoors at the day's extremes can conjure up a surreal atmosphere where otherwise ordinary, perfectly normal perceptions would take shape. Because of the sheer quiet and stillness of everything, even in a group or with a partner one can feel pleasantly alone, an experience which ends up creating a more bonding feeling than if done during the regular day with many more people around and about.
On one summer sunrise hike, my group inexplicably forgot headlamps (why we didn't already have them in our packs I'll never know) but because of a glorious (and unknown to me until that very morning) full moon, we meandered our way up the dark early morning path with a peaceful, luminous glow showing the way. On another sunrise climb up Mount Adams (NH), the utter silence was incredible; my partner and I could only hear our footsteps and the slight wind and whatever rustle our packs made. We could hear our own breath with each step as the grade became steeper and our bodies worked harder to keep going up the rocky, sharp incline. An hour and half in, we heard a bizarre and large, sweeping sound coming from just up ahead in the woods. We stopped. It sounded like a large tarp was being dragged through the trees. There was no other sound whatsoever. We practically stopped breathing for a moment. We heard another noise seconds later, similar except even larger and closer. No words were spoken. We both turned and headed back down the trail we worked so hard to climb for the last ninety minutes. The descent felt like it took ten minutes as we made our way quickly down in the dark until we reached the parking lot and our car. The entire lot was quiet and in the dark, the dawn still two hours or so away. It was only then we talked about what we heard. It was bizarre and among the most eerie things I've ever experienced on a hike. One thing we knew--if that had happened in the daytime, we never would have turned around. Perhaps we wouldn't have even heard it.
My experiences hiking at "off" hours have been unique every time. There is not one sunset where I've shrugged my shoulders and just headed back down the mountain. Every sunrise I've seen is incredible under these conditions. When I've been around others on top of a mountain or on a beach who haven't seen this sight I enjoy it vicariously for the first time through them. I took my daughter two summers ago on her first sunrise hike and it was just as affecting for me even though I had been on many by that point. Even the turnaround hike scare on Mount Adams was worthwhile. We ended up catching the sunrise later on down the road (it was a stunner and all we could do was imagine what it must have looked five thousand feet plus on the summit).
Our world seems bent on being more driven, hardened and occupied than ever, trying to demonstrate how busy we all are, often losing track of the real beauty around them, the stillness in between the static. There are, of course, only 24 hours in a day. We all get to decide how we want to spend them. Getting outside during the quieter, more peaceful times of the day is a gift we all deserve. Try it out yourself. You won't regret it.