Searching for the Horizon

The Horizon:

Out west, southwest, in Arizona, in Utah, in New Mexico – you drive for miles, hundreds of miles and always, you can see the horizon unfolding in front of you. Flagstaff, Kachina Village, Camp Verde, Black Canyon City, Anthem, Phoenix, Tempe, Casa Grande, Picacho Peak, Tucson, Nogales rise up from the dust as you approach them, the distinct shift from landscape to civilization to the mountains beyond visible from miles away. There is always a shape out there, something to work towards: a mountain range, a canyon crevice, a brightly colored Mexican restaurant. I am accustomed to seeing the San Francisco Peaks—altitude 12,633 feet—with just one sweep of my eyes. I am accustomed to spinning three hundred sixty degrees to take in an unobstructed sphere of blue sky. I am accustomed to space, space, space extending as far as my soul wishes to go.

The Stars:

There are more than 170 billion galaxies, a total of 300 sextillion stars, in our observable universe.

Flagstaff, Arizona—my hometown—is the country’s first Internal Dark Sky City.[1] On winter nights, the earth seems to pull the stars close enough to touch. I always felt the dark with my eyes, wanting to hold the three stars of Orion’s belt in my irises. It comforted me to look up every night and see the same constellation hanging there between the ponderosa pines. Even now, when I return home for winter vacation, I always look for them. One account of Orion’s myth says that he was in love with the Pleiades, a group of seven sisters, and when they were turned into a constellation he followed them into the sky. Now, he eternally chases after them, never getting close enough to catch them – they are always out of reach, like the horizon. Like me, he searches for something that perpetually evades him. Each night, his belt’s three stars rotate slightly farther away from me as our orbit around the sun continues, but, as long as the winter lasts, I can still come back to those three perfectly aligned stars shining bright.

In New Haven, in the winter, Orion’s belt barely shines – it must compete with thousands of other lights for its place in the night sky. Often, at night, I sit looking out from my dorm room window. Atop a tall dark building a stop light blinks: “Stop—stop.” A waning moon and a road lamp glow with matching light, cold and bright. Car windows mirror street lamps and bring stars to a town too urban for stars; balls of gas that usually call the sky home now twinkle falsely in glass and rain puddles that pool in the asphalt’s cracks. When the cars pull away, my stars vanish.

The River:

Three summers ago, while on a river trip on the San Juan River in Utah, I lay on my sleeping bag staring at the Big Dipper. I basked in the simple, primal beauty of being “on the river.” Without the Internet or your cell phone, you just live. In the morning, you wake when the sun gets too bright, too hot. You eat breakfast. You row. You row hard:  “All forward! Two back!” Your feet brace against the inflatable tubes of the boat. You bite into the water with your paddle as you lean forward, almost horizontal, and pull your entire torso back as the boat sails forward. You row until every calorie you consumed at breakfast combusts to feed your screaming muscles. You row past that point. You row more. Your bones hurt from the hard raft. You want Zack, the semi-competent river guide, to stop yelling, “All forward! And one more… And one more!”

Then finally, there is lunch, and you fill your body with simple food: potato chips, lunch meat, mustard, grapes, cookies – lots of cookies. You eat more than usual. You carry the boat back up the rocks, trying to avoid the poison oak. Back to camp. Sit, talk, notice the two patches of sunburn on your legs and wonder at their bizarre shape, shave your armpits (or not – no one cares here). Then dinner snacks: chips, crackers, hummus, chips, guacamole, chips, cheesecake. Food never tasted so good. Someone starts a fire even though the riverbank still radiates a comfortable heat.  Dinner – you’re hungry. Afterward, you wash your dishes. You sit. You talk. You find your sleeping bag and stare up at the Big Dipper. You kiss, turn over, spoon, sleep. Sunrises.

The Sun:

“Sunshine, sunshine, it’s fine
I feel it in my skin, warming up my mind,
Sometimes you gotta give in to win,
I love the days when it shines, whoa let it shine” [2]

The most beautiful drive in Arizona is from Phoenix to Tucson just as the sun sets. Look out the window to your right and you will see the black silhouette of the Santa Rosa Mountains with saguaros growing on the slopes. The sun remains a peachy pink until it disappears, but the sky continues to burn with color long after it has sunk: alizarin, amber, byzantine, golden yellow, maroon, carmine red, coquelicot, tangerine, coral. The desert glows a different color with each degree the earth spins away from the sun.

Back home, in a state where 242 days of full sunlight are not unusual, sunglasses were part of my everyday wardrobe whether it was July or December. Here, in New Haven (which averages 82 sunny days per year), they haven’t left my desk drawer for four months. The winter sun goes to bed earlier here because of daylight savings time. On November 7th, 2010 I put my clock back one hour for the first time in my life—Arizona is the only state besides Hawaii that does not participate in daylight savings time. They say it saves energy, it decreases traffic accidents, traffic fatalities, incidences of crime, but it steals away my precious hour of sunlight.

The Strength of the Horizon:

Claustrophobia (n): the fear of being closed in, of having no escape

In 1980, while attending Corcoran School of Art, my father began wearing glasses for near-sightedness. After he graduated, my father took a job delivering artwork to locations all cross the country. Every day he drove for many hours, always looking ahead down the road, watching as each new town arose on the horizon. After a few months on the job, he noticed that his vision had begun to improve and soon, he no longer needed to wear his glasses. My father says that the act of shifting his focus from the speedometer to the ever-changing horizon in front of him strengthened his eyes. The act of looking forward and beyond improved his view of that unlimited space in front of him.

After a year and half in New Haven, my own vision has deteriorated: everything is too close; I can no longer see what lies in the distance. I find myself squinting more often, struggling to recognize faces as I pass them after dark, struggling to read road signs on overcast days, struggling as my far point of focus seems to move closer and closer to me. Just as the trees seem to lean further and further towards me, just as the rectangular buildings seem to encroach more and more on my field of vision, just as the walls of my dorm room seem to squeeze tighter and tighter around me.

Color’s Touch

Today, I awake to my dorm room glowing with carmine red light. It is around seven o’clock in the morning, an hour before my alarm is set to ring. I have not seen carmine red since I left Arizona.  With a movement of my hand, I push back the curtains so that I can feel the sunshine “in my skin, warming up my mind,” so that I feel the caress of this distant lover and remember Arizona. Rosy light pours into my room. But I look out to see a horizon quite different than the Santa Rosa Mountains. Two rectangular office buildings loom up into the sky, creating an industrialized skyline silhouetted by the sun behind it, blocking the sun. But color radiates out from behind it nonetheless, reaching out rays of sunlight.

Sofia Nicholson was born and raised in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she enjoys looking at the stars, hiking the San Francisco Peaks, and lying amongst the red rocks of Sedona.  Send her an email at

[2] “Sunshine” by Atmosphere

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