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Jim Duke | Author


Springtime is the most beautiful and pleasant time of the year to visit the desert and canyon lands. Daytime temperatures are warm enough to be comfortable without all the cumbersome and claustrophobic winter clothing of the Colorado Mountains, but not so hot as to stifle outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, riding, and shadow racing. It's the time of year that the desert suddenly bursts to life with wildflowers, lizards, bugs, and birds.

My mules, donkeys, and dogs all seem to enjoy it even more than we people do. The mules and donkeys especially seem to miss the intimate contact with snow free, soft sand. Even more than wanting to sample all the fresh green sprouts coming up, they want to lie down and roll, and roll, and whip the sand with their tails, muzzle it around a little, breathe it in and snort it out, and roll some more. Only then will they want to get up and check out the sparse, but endless, smorgasbord of new, young vegetation.

The dogs will want to do a little rolling as well but are mostly interested in investigating the presence of kangaroo rats, ground squirrels, and cottontails in the area. There appears to be no end to the fresh scents and trails in the spring warmth. There's a constant scuttling sound through the dry leaves as various small rodents, skinks, and other lizards run for cover from our footsteps. Much like the lizards, many of us will spend the early morning hours seeking the first rays of sun. It's still cold enough at night this time of year that aspect to the morning sun can be a major consideration in choosing camp sites.

Sun and shade are always major factors in campsite selection in the desert, with afternoon shade gaining importance later in the spring and throughout summer. But direct morning sun on a chilly desert morning is even better than a campfire. And because most of the best campsites are usually fairly close to the bottom of a canyon or drainage of some sort, close to water but always above the flash flood levels delineated by the debris stuck in tree branches, it's usually at least a short walk uphill to the first good sunning spot. Even then one might have to wait interminably long minutes for the morning sunshine to work its way down the face of a sheer cliff to reach the chosen slab of rock for sunning.

The movement of sun and shadow on canyon walls has always captivated me. This may well have evolved from chilly mornings wondering when the welcome rays of morning sun might reach an accessible point for sunning. At any rate, trying to guess the timing of the arrival of sunshine or shade at various locations has become a regular game whenever I'm in canyon country. Random sorts of races have also been a favorite pastime. Ever since my early teenage years, I've been notorious for starting races to some random point on a distant horizon and back.

Such races would usually start with an idle comment about how far away some distant landmark might be. This would lead to some debating on how long it would take to reach that landmark, resulting in a challenge, and sooner than later, one or several of us would be off and running, often swimming, crawling, climbing, and generally scrambling through woods, croplands, ponds, and rivers toward a specific landmark. Eventually the random races combined with the speculations on the progress of sun and shadows to become what my daughters and I would call shadow racing. This would involve the choosing of random distant destinations and then, rather than racing against the clock or another person, racing either the morning sun, or evening shade to that location. This approach doubles the necessary speculation because one must judge their own time to cover that distance as well as guessing how long before the sunshine or shade reaches that point. It's actually something that all outdoorsy sorts of people do all the time without really defining it as a race. How often have you tried to reach a certain high point or outcrop in time to watch the sunset, or tried to get to a favorite hunting or fishing spot by sunrise?

Many daily activities directly or indirectly involve sun chasing and/or shadow racing. Farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and many other professions are still guided largely by sun and moon cycles. For that matter, all of us whose lives are ruled by the clock are basically sun chasers because clocks are merely representations of the earth's rotational cycles. It's really not much a of a stretch to include all living things, except maybe a few cave dwellers and deep-sea creatures, in the society of sun chasers and shadow racers. It merely becomes more pronounced and obvious in the desert where sun and shade can literally dictate between life and death, or more often for the casual context of the occasional camper, the difference between comfort and discomfort.

So how come racing the sun in the desert can be so much fun while racing clocks through the rest of our lives can seem such a hassle when the two really aren't all that different. Why is dealing directly with the source of time and the fuel of life in the form of the sun so much more satisfying than dealing with its various representations? It seems that some of the most deeply satisfying experiences in life somehow relate to our most primal instincts and distant feelings. Virtually all surface life on earth depends upon the sun for food production. Throughout evolution most animals have also used the sun for the warmth necessary for speed and mobility. Whichever dinosaurs could warm up fastest would be more able to capture prey and/or avoid being prey.

Even we warm blooded critters function best when fully warmed up, often with the aid of the sun. So maybe warming up in the sun provides more than just warmth. Maybe it satisfies a deep primordial need to soak up the sun in order to survive. It provides us with the security of being able to outrun another day. It might be that we have all been sun chasers throughout evolution with this activity being the first and most important part of survival and therefore the most satisfying achievement of the day. Maybe that's what feels so good about early morning sun bathing.

The seeking of shade in the heat of the day must also come with deeply rooted, subconscious rewards of having accomplished another necessary step in survival. The same logic could apply to some degree to all aspects of sun chasing and shadow racing. As historically migratory hunter/gatherers, it's not hard to imagine the importance of judging time and distance to a destination relative to the heat of the day or dark of night. This must have been a fairly routine activity throughout the evolution of man. Many outdoors experiences feel vaguely familiar in a very comfortable way. This may occur when current activities such as picking berries, or fishing, or racing the sun so closely emulate ancient activities of migratory hunter/gatherers that it puts us in a very primordially familiar comfort zone. It makes us feel as though we're doing what we're supposed to do. It's what we evolved for and are designed to do.

I have long since quit chasing clocks, but hope to never quit chasing the sun and pursuing primordial satisfactions.