My dad died when he was 62. Seemed a tad early since I was led to believe the average male achieves a lifespan of 75-89 years.
But Dad was alive with me when we saw the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Strangely enough, we happen to have been discussing that very topic. Dad asked me, “Son, what is beauty?” I looked at him with an expression that said, “Are you serious?!”
“You know” I said. “A sunset, a pretty woman, mountains,…”
He interrupted, “No, I know what examples of beauty are. I just want to understand what beauty itself is.”
My expression changed to one of deep contemplation and then to humility. I could not answer his question. I was unable to find the words. But the events that followed freed me from a necessity to explain.
We were making our way home, Dad was driving his pickup, I was in the passenger seat and we were only about a quarter mile from our driveway. We lived in the Sierra Nevada mountains and this was late in the afternoon, early in autumn.
As we came close to the rim of the last hill before our driveway, the cloudy sky above us turned red. Just a slight pink hue at first, but very rapidly the sky went blood red. My dad looked up. then I looked up. “Uh-oh,” Dad said. “That doesn’t look good.” He was referring to the threat of a forest fire… and in this case, one that was awfully close to home. We both cringed as we neared the crest of the hill where we would soon gain a full view of the valley below.
We crested the hill and… nothing. No giant flames, no sparks and embers flying in the wind. Just a peaceful valley beneath a brightly glowing crimson sky. We both looked up again, puzzled.
“What the heck is going on here?” we both said practically in unison.
Halfway down the hill, we passed our driveway and kept driving. We now had to know what was making the sky pure red. As we descended toward the bridge that crossed the creek at the bottom of the hill, we looked in every direction for the source of this scarlet surprise above us. But we saw nothing… until we crossed the creek.
Dry Creek meanders through the valley, crosses Frenchtown Road and flows out thru a green pasture peppered by pale-green lichen covered oak trees. Out there in that expanse of green, floating on the creek, was a bank of fog. The fog was perhaps 20 feet high, 40 feet wide and followed the creek for about 75 yards. The bank of fog was pure red and glowing so brightly we could barely look at it for more than a few seconds. When we arrived and parked the car just past the bridge the fog was just going from a deep, deep red to a deep, deep magenta. It was easier to continue staring at when the magenta color came. It softened the glow just a little bit from sunlight intensity to something like car headlight intensity.
We were enraptured. There were no hard edges to the bank of fog. The red color gave way to the true colors around it with a subtle fade. It was as if red light had taken on the form of a terrestrial cloud and, while lying in the creek, was changing colors before our very eyes. The magenta began to change to bright orange and the transition created a color so vibrant and unusual that no existing phenomenon had ever matched it. The orange itself was so delightful that we were barely able to contain ourselves. As that bright orange finally faded to a pale pink we watched as all the light was suddenly drained from the fog and we were left with nothing more than a pale grey cloud lying in the creek as the sun went down far up the valley behind it.
Dad and I looked at each other, combing the surprised expression on each other’s faces.
“Well,” I said to Dad, “that was beauty!”