Basking in a fleeting magic

As a hobby photographer, I have been enjoying playing with golden hour light since this past spring. Early in the pandemic restrictions, I would walk five blocks to what I thought was my “boring” neighborhood park, to enjoy some fresh air and outdoor time. But the sloth of the lockdown held a gift for me: the first few weeks of severely reduced working hours had me, mostly happily, staying in bed until 1 or 2:00 in the afternoon more often than not. By the time I had showered, eaten, and decided to go to the park, the light would be starting to turn. And it was absolutely enthralling.

There is a Japanese phrase, mono no aware (“the quietly elated, bittersweet feeling of having been witness to the dazzling circus of life – knowing that none of it can last”) that describes the “extra” beauty of an aspect of nature that arises when we know that the beauty is fleeting.

This could aptly describe the end of summer, the end of a flower’s blossom, the end of a day … so I think that the golden hour, while visually stunning in its own right, also benefits from this concept.

Today was a spectacular Portland September day. The high temperature was around 80 degrees (27 C), and after work I spontaneously decided to bike to one of my favorite food carts, Uncle Tsang’s Kitchen. The ride took me along the beautiful Springwater Corridor. After a wonderful outdoor meal of vegan Chinese food, I headed home a different way, through the Westmoreland neighborhood. As I was rounding the bend at Bybee Blvd, I glanced to my left and was visually struck—not for the first time—that there was a beautiful overlook of the Willamette River just there, and there seemed to be some benches. Tonight, I finally paused long enough to check, and sure enough: I saw three picnic tables, two of which were occupied, and the last one just waiting for me.

As I parked my bike next to the table, I was overcome with the beauty of the light. It was about 6:30 pm, and the sun was dropping in the sky, saturating all the river trees with a golden glow. I marveled at it, and began photographing somewhat obsessively, as is my wont.

Finally, I relaxed and simply sat at the table, soaking in the moment. After thirty years in Portland, to sit in this spot was another first for me this summer. The temperature was perfect. The light was perfect. This wonderful dream of a bike tour hummed in the back of my head.

And… I realized that a big part of my motivation for taking this trip is to maximize the golden hours in my life. I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms, but that is what I’m dreaming of: to follow the light and the warm, pleasant weather all around the continent. Of course I know I will encounter days—probably stretches of weeks—that will deviate drastically from these ideal conditions. But… I hope that on most days of this tour, I will greet the golden hour tired but satisfied, and I will be able to sit—alone or with friends, new or old—outdoors, in some new spot every few days, feeling the warmth of the lowering sun and basking in its magical glow.

This summer is drawing to a close in Portland. If all goes according to plan, by this time next year I will be in southern Oregon or northern California. Tonight, as the evening ebbed, the summer ebbed, the year ebbed, my time in Portland ebbed… I savored the mono no aware.

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