The Naked Eye

Rain drips from the eaves of our cabin porch near Westcliffe, Colorado, as Led Zeppelin’s The Rain Song plays in my ear pods. It’s 60 degrees and the sky is electric as I gaze at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rising like blue steel in the distance.

The mountains whisper as I write, distracting me, as my gaze wanders once more to the Southern Rockies. What makes us want to climb them and peer down into the valleys at the places we normally live and breath where the oxygen is plentiful and the risk of dying less palpable? This morning I scaled a small rise next to the cabin. I dodge outcrops of granite, jackrabbit droppings, and cactus making my way to the top, an elevation gain from 8,860 to 9,160 feet. Across the valley, Cottonwood Peak rises to 13,500 feet of elevation. Bluebirds flutter near our porch oblivious to the viral fury of a world gone strangely akilter. It’s blissfully quiet. Karen is hiking with me and the altitude makes us stop to rest before we press on. The 360 view from atop is breathtaking. Back home, mom is taking care of cats and gardens in the blistering heat. Karen calls from the peak. They catch up on garden pests, rain levels, and the everyday care of the household we left behind. The din of progress, the persistence of texts, the chatter of commerce, the debate of masked right and wrong…is silent. In its place, a zephyr passes through the aspens and pines. I stand atop this hill and gaze in all directions rotating like a rotisserie chicken taking in the scenery.

Later we drove to Royal Gorge. Standing on the suspension bridge we look down at what appears to be toy boats, kayakers 1,250 below navigating the rapids of the Arkansas River which is 50’ wide at the bottom of the crevasse. There are state flags on the bridge rails. Mississippi still is proclaiming the Confederate ideal in one corner of the flag, at least on this bridge. Apparently the decorators haven’t yet received the memo that Mississippi’s governor retired that rebel version June 30, 2020.

“Come on over!” The sign implores us to come back to the north edge of the park and we get in line for the gondola. Karen and Jenna decide to ride the zip line back over. Their ride is more scintillating than our leisurely gondola ride. I think of “Where Eagles Dare.” Richard Widmark rides the top of a gondola battling Germans, which is a bit more risky than this.
We drive back through Canon City and Florence and note the abundance of high security prisons, some which date back to the 19th century when the west was wild and gold was a tempting target for thieves. We drove through the San Isabel National Forest and came around a hairpin curve and Karen pointed to a ledge above the highway. She couldn’t get the word out so I said it for her. “Bear!” I stopped on the shoulder and we rolled down the window. A large black bear studied us and trotted off not wanting any social engagement. We drove on in disbelief but it wasn’t long before we spied another bear, in the valley perhaps 150 yards to our left. This bear is lighter in color, but still likely a black bear. This bear wasn’t foraging, but rather on its haunches tearing meat and skin off a fresh kill. Not wanting to abandon a meal, the bear wasn’t moving off it’s dinner and we stopped and stared for a long time before letting the bear finish dinner in peace.

Later that evening, as dusk settled into darkness, we glanced upward at the Milky Way, and then to the northwest, we spotted the NEOWISE comet in its orbit around the sun. It won’t be back for another 6,800 years. In this twinkling dark sky, we easily see this comet which is typically only seen with the aid of binoculars. Will bears still roam these forests in 6,800 years when the comet reappears? I hope so. Above us and near us we gaze at the elements of the universe. Is it beautiful without someone to name it? The ancients looked at the stars and named them. Ursa Major, or the Great Bear, which contains the asterism known as the Big Dipper.

Last night we craned our necks and looked at a comet not to be seen in these skies for another 6,800 years, and we gazed at the Big Dipper, part of the Great Bear.

Johannes Hevelius was an astronomer from the 17th century. Although the telescope was coming into general use during Hevelius time, he rejected the invention. He published a star atlas in 1690. Tucked into a cartoon in the corner of one sky chart there is a cherub holding a card with the Latin motto, “The naked eye is best.”

Modern science refutes that notion. However, on this day, with our naked eyes we looked upon the great skies and the majestic mountains of southern Colorado, and we saw things that we’ll never see again. One bear feasting in a meadow, another foraging, the great she-bear, Ursa Major, shining down, and a comet streaking inexorably into the future leaving a tail of its past, all of this in quiet moments that made us wonder why we were so lucky to see all this in a single day.

Some days we chase our tails like cats, or comets that streak across the sky weighed down by the gravitational force of something too large to overcome. On this day, we overcame that force, we saw things with our naked eyes that we’ll always treasure.

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