Arizona is in the midst of an intense summer heatwave. As uncomfortable as it might be, the summer season, historically, signifies life and growth. Commentator Scott Thybony recently traveled to a summer solstice spot in the Little Colorado River Basin, and brings home the point that summer is deliberate and necessary.
It was late afternoon when I parked on the edge of an old lava flow where the boulders had been absorbing sunlight all day. The black rock radiated enough heat to keep the air temperature close to its peak of 106 degrees. That may be why no one had volunteered to come along. I would be under the desert sun for another four hours, so soaked my bandana and grabbed a wide-brim hat.
My plan was to backpack to a site where a complex pattern of black stones covered a wide expanse of red bedrock. The stone circles, linear clearings, and rock alignments likely mapped the paths of the sun and moon in a ceremonial landscape centuries old. A couple of friends and I had come upon it last winter. At the time we were investigating a craterfield built to replicate the lunar surface for training Apollo astronauts. Now on the spur of the moment, I was off to explore the ancient site on the longest day of the year.
Descending an old trail into the furnace of the Little Colorado basin, I kept walking. Other people, I knew, would be gathering across the Four Corners country for the solstice watch. It has become a tradition for many to witness the interplay of shadow and light at prehistoric sites with known solar calendars. These places range from a great kiva at Chaco Canyon and a cliff house at Mesa Verde to a rock art panel at Petrified Forest.
Up ahead stood a solitary outcrop of sandstone resembling a stormcloud building above the horizon. At the summit a sun calendar, consisting of a circle divided into quadrants, had been carved into the rock face to mark key solar events. And below the petroglyph spread the old stonefield as the sun lowered toward the western horizon. I made camp in a pocket of red sand, and began searching for rock alignments oriented to the solstice sunset.
One line ran straight for hundreds of feet, while others intersected at sharp angles or trailed off in zigzags. Another alignment, 300 feet long, pointed directly at the setting sun, and I noticed my shadow reaching out behind me on a parallel track. I suddenly realized the line of stones marking sunset on summer solstice would also mark the sunrise on winter solstice, showing the symmetry of the sun’s path. As the reds and blues drained from the sky, I returned to camp.
Next morning I hurried back to the site as dawn light domed above the eastern horizon, spreading high and wide. I reached a slight rise where a large boulder stood within a circle of stones connected to a line of black rocks curving back on itself with two right-angle turns. As the sun broke the horizon, each stone threw an elongated shadow across the red surface.
Standing motionless next to the boulder I noticed my shadow touching the far corner where the alignment turned north. And the shadows cast by the configuration of stones all converged on the same corner. A single point of space marked a single point in time, where the sun would set six months later on winter solstice. In a dramatic way, the rockwork connected the longest and shortest days of the year.
The colors continued to thin as I resumed exploring the site, and the shadows drew back as the angle of the sun increased overhead. What began with a search for an astronaut training ground, led us to a ritual landscape centuries older. And I learned the two aren’t so far apart when it comes to human curiosity about our place in the universe. People, widely separated in time, have found ways to connect their own lives with the movements of the sky.