Last summer on the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I avoided the fastest most direct route from I40, opting instead for the ‘scenic route’ just east of the city. I’d taken that same route before, and only agreed to my spouse’s suggestion to take that road knowing that sundown was still an hour or so away.
What I hadn’t counted on was the mute light in the waning hours of the day, making the hairpin turns more treacherous and the shadows a substantial impediment to knowing if someone had drifted over to my side of the narrow two-lane road. In between those white knuckle moments, were periods of stunning beauty. I had never before seen the light play off the red soil like that afternoon. I couldn’t recall among my many trips to New Mexico the strands of muted sunlight bring out the details of the terrain so well as it did on that stretch at that time of day.
Later that weekend, on Museum Hill just outside Santa Fe, an afternoon cluster of storm clouds became more dramatic through the dark lenses of my sunglasses. The mountains in the distance stood out more prominently, as did the vortex center of those clouds that at that moment discreetly held the rain and the raw materials to fuel the lightning and thunder that flashed and boomed shortly after.
I’m not a trained photographer, so I didn’t get the photos that would do justice to either of these phenomena. All I can do is share painter Georgia O’Keefe’s vision of what she saw of the desert from her home in Abiquiú, New Mexico.
These observations made me think of writing in terms of illumination and darkness. Consider one example: a girl and her brother and their friend discovering the world. Illumination comes from the father of the boy and girl as he explains the implications of race in their community. Later, darkness threatens the girl and her brother, and in the shadows a mystical character reveals himself in order to save them both. The book, of course, is To Kill a Mockingbird, and the characters are Scout and Jem Finch and their friend Dill. The mystical figure is one of my favorites from literature, Boo Radley. What reader of the book can forget Boo in the shadows, watching over a bed-ridden Jem?
We writers are weavers of light and darkness, daybreak and sundown. We hide the danger in spots of low-light along treacherous roads and call up turbulence just when everything seems calm in those bright blue skies. The safest story would have been for me to drive along the well-traveled freeway with nothing to hide. The struggle between darkness and light, shadow and filtered strands of sun make for a much more interesting ride.
In the end, I conquered my fear like any protagonist I would hope is worth reading about.