Sunrise

Flying high above the clouds at sunrise in Orange County.

It was an early morning winter flight bound for Salt Lake City, and as the plane taxied to the runway for takeoff, I noticed the night was beginning to shed its dark cloak in my particular slice of the world, but that was about it — not much else to see out the porthole window next to me.

Under a sheet of slate-grey clouds, we rolled onto the tarmac and waited in the gathering dawn, and in about 5 minutes, the plane put a boot on my chest and slammed me back into my seat as we strove to get airborne. Once aloft, and with not much to see in the (albeit diminishing) gloom, I picked up a magazine and began to read… and that’s when things started happening outside.

The pilot lifted us ever upward, and while I read, I nearly failed to notice the electrifying scene that was now unfolding outside my tiny viewport. I was sitting on the left side of the plane, and as we banked sharply right, I found myself on the high side of the plane — and I happened to glance out the window.

We had already punched a hole in a vast cloud layer unseen in the darkness on the ground, and were rising steadily above it like a reverse-trajectory meteor. And below me, I saw what was now the surface of that well-defined strata of whispering white vapor, outlined with hard edges on every single boundary, each one evoking a scene of violent billowing in almost imperceptibly slow motion, appearing to float calmly in a roaring sea of white. Out on the horizon, a narcissistic sun heralded its own inexorable arrival, beginning with a thin blast of deeply intense laser-red fire, licking and exploding off the tops of the hard-relief cloud layer textures laid out before me below.

Although I was as yet unaware of its presence, we were now traveling in a second layer of cloud, this one only a thin haze barely discernible outside the window, and the unseen white-hot orb beyond the curvature of the earth ebbed and swirled its dark red heat through the rolling tide of this misty world, ferociously screaming through the darkness and blasting its still dim and darkling energy upward toward another, less-defined ceiling of cloud above us, where it purled into ever-brighter shades of indigo, purple, red and deep orange.

The horizontal slice of icy sky between the cloud layers in which we now moved was still a deep, near-black blue-azure, shot through with purple streaks all the way to the vanishing point out on the razor’s edge of the earth before us, and our turn to the right slowly put this flaming red-orange display at our tail, leaving me only a view of a vast ocean of cloud boiling in a lazy time warp below us, now painted with the first colors of early sun.

Our turn continued, and now the sun threatened the plane’s right side, leaving my view toward the horizon full of deep blues and whites tinged with the ruddy shades of a blood-red dawn.

Thinking the display over, I went back to my magazine, but with a start, I realized there was now another celestial body contending for my attention straight out the window to my left: a huge full moon, corpulent and lazy as if gorged with its fill of stars as it neared the end of its journey, casting a last baleful glare of reluctant fury toward its mortal enemy, the sun, still obscured by the earth on the other side of the world.

I was trapped in a ferocious crossfire, with the never-ending battle for dominance over the heavens laid out before me, the moon and sun forever locked in mortal combat, each plunging from supremacy to surrender every day since time immemorial.

But there it was, the full moon, fat and exhausted from its night travels burning into the cabin like a huge, white-hot flashlight, brighter and bigger than I’ve ever seen. And without warning to the west (now my right), the rising sun suddenly cracked the light-blocking shell of the earth’s edge, sending giant swaths of brilliant orange electricity roaring across the clouds below us as if in victorious revelry as the searing white eye of the full moon glared jealously back at its enemy in the east. But even now, the moon herself brought the deep-toned sky to a spectacular shade of richest royal blue, and the last epic battle between the orbs of this day on my left and right began in earnest.

It seemed to me the pilot was supernaturally gifted to dodge unharmed the maelstrom of stabbing orange bolts and white return-fire from the sun that pierced the wickedly vibrant part-gloom. The sun’s new light now brought every detail of the razor-edged clouds below into perfect focus, and as if taunting the moon as her newfound power gave her the upper hand. Her light exploded into the as-yet unnoticed haze layer of our current path with a thermonuclear orange that seemed to thrum and howl from within every molecule of the fog that hung in the atmosphere. We were swimming in a vast transparent sea of flames the color of fresh magma, as if transported to another universe.

One look upward toward the third layer, a ceiling of undefined high cloud, revealed the true power of this balance shift as bright, broad swaths of daylight color flecked and splashed across its bottom deck with tremendous power. It was in that moment that the unmistakable cloak of night tore away with a final protest and the earth began to reveal itself through jagged holes now formed in the clouds below.

The reflected light from white-orange snows of the Sierra peaks that reached skyward toward the plane elevated the brightness of this magnificent scene to surreal levels of orange inside the cabin. And then in an instant it all burned out, a trillion candles extinguished simultaneously, as if to say “we now return you to your normally scheduled daytime colors.” It was clear that a tenuous and silent truce was reached, and the moon relented as a brighter dawn cracked the sky at last.