Much of the country is sheltering in place as best they can right now while the coronavirus continues to spread. For commentator Scott Thybony, this is a chance to do what he loves best: get outside, away from people and reflect on the natural world and the human spirit. Here is Scott’s latest Canyon Commentary.
Alone on the rim of a dead volcano, I stand with my head titled back staring at the sky. The snow-covered San Francisco Peaks lie southward, and the upper cliffs of the Grand Canyon form a thin line far to the north. It’s big, empty country, and my only companion is an antelope in the crater below. It stands perfectly still pretending to be invisible, and I pretend not to see. We give each other plenty of space in line with the current protocol to avoid contact with others. The changes in daily life during the pandemic have given me a reason to head out on my own, a reason to continue doing what I’ve always done.
A dozen lens-shaped clouds hang overhead, each luminous white and as smooth as a river pebble. These lenticular clouds usually develop downwind of a mountain summit not in the wide-open sky. But wind shear along the edge of an approaching storm must be creating them. They have an otherworldly quality, and observers often describe them as flying saucers. For me, they stir a memory of coming upon a pod of beluga whales floating ghostlike just below the surface of an Arctic inlet. Clouds have a way of drawing out different images in each of us.
The place I’ve come to is familiar ground. We used to live out here, off the grid and a long way from a paved road. It’s an ideal place for seeking refuge when contact with others is discouraged. In winter our nearest neighbor used to live nine-miles away, which may be why I tend to measure social distance in miles instead of feet. We’re now townies with a home in Flagstaff, so to avoid people by staying put doesn’t work as well as heading out.
Earlier this morning I took Highway 89 North and turned onto a dirt road entering the vast volcanic field surrounding the Peaks. It contains 600 cinder cones with enough room in between to leave me to my own thoughts. The track I drove turned rough, and I followed it until the amount of solitude felt about right. Then I started walking cross-country, checking out the atmospherics as I went, and ended up on top of a volcanic cone.
Surrounded by wide-open space, it makes an ideal platform to view the even wider expanses of sky. Overhead, the fluid air resembles a broad river with its cross-currents, boils, and eddies. Half a dozen cloud types have materialized with many of them holding their shapes for only a minute or two. Winds shred them into patches, and some simply transform through their own dynamic energy.
As the temperature drops, I put on another layer and turn back. Digging my heels into the red cinders, I descend the steep slope without seeing a single plume of dust on the road below or a contrail above. No one has passed by for hours as each of us takes shelter in our own place. On this morning, my place is here in these solitudes where no one can lock down the human spirit.