Through the vast rocky desert of southern Nevada, Andrew and I are returning from an afternoon in Pahrump when we round a bend and see Las Vegas sprawled below us. 

The city appears like a mirage. Approached on desert roads at night, Las Vegas glimmers like a lake of stars, the Luxor Sky Beam suspended between heaven and earth like an anchor’s taut chain. In the daylight, the Mojave Desert opens wide and reveals a civilization of millions.

View of Las Vegas from the southeast. Photo by Ryan Hafey on Unsplash

This afternoon is blustery and overcast, the early October air cooling from the long summer. The car thrums with music and trembles with wind. I flex my fingers over the steering wheel, singing.

We round the bend and the clouds part over Las Vegas. A wide shaft of heavenly sunlight beams down upon the glimmering empire, spotlighting the Stratosphere, the High Roller, and everything in between. The scene glows with the auspices of the gods.

I take in the illuminated Strip and erupt into irrepressible laughter.

Artists repeat themselves. We must. Our obsessions resolve into patterns, until a body of work expands into a crisscross of threads to be traced across time. Sometimes the richest threads are those we discover long after beginning. Images emerge. Themes evolve. Symbols create themselves.

When I recently reviewed some of my older work, I noticed an obsession I’d never seen before. Beams of light shone through even my childhood writing. Sunlight trickled through forest canopies or through ruined temple roofs. Moonlight shimmered through darkened windows. Candlelight slipped beneath closed doors. The beams were gold and silver, luminous and twinkling, hushed and reverent with magic. 

Never intentionally symbolic: merely present. Always in moments of discovery or of quietude. Moments that expand, that stretch. Moments of static intensity. Moments of crossing.

Let there be light.

Large crepuscular ray over a lake. Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

Holy sunshine bathes Sin City in glory. I’m laughing at the blasphemous day-star and at my own judgmental heart.

When sunbeams like this occur in nature, they’re called crepuscular rays. The name comes from the Latin word for twilight, which is when such rays are most likely to occur. But outside of scientific circles, they’re known by many names: sun rays, splintered light, god rays, cloud breaks. Buddha rays. Fingers of God. God’s Eye. Jacob’s Ladder. Jesus rays. Maori people call them Ropes of Maui, after a trickster hero who used ropes to lengthen the sun’s trek across the sky.

Rays like these have a sacred look about them. A significance.

In my art, I’m all about chiaroscuro. Give me pigment fresh from the tube, and let me cut it with a crisp black silhouette. Give me soaring beauty with a backdrop of pain. Give me light, and give me darkness.

Other artists dance between extremes. Let them. No one draws the entire world. 

In Las Vegas, humankind defies the desert. Consider carving a hospitality empire from a landscape of sand and stone and scrub. The city’s sheer size spotlights the work of generations. Here, the awe-struck wanderer encounters pyramids and gondolas, the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, stone goddesses and soaring athletes. Always something new. Always something old made new.

And there is ordinary life within the revelry: all the dramas of any other city, all the foldings and unfoldings of days.

Every silver lining has a cloud. Something must cast the shadow. There never was a glorious beam of light without a gloaming or a darkness or a shade. Light and shadow entwine, encircle, exalt each other. The sharper the contrast, the more wondrous the beauty.

When dusk falls, the Luxor will light the Sky Beam in answer. Who am I to deny this city natural resplendence? The sun belongs to the entire world. I’m laughing as the freeway coils away towards Las Vegas, wind churning the clouds, sunbeam glorifying the gilded desert empire. My laughter warms my throat like sunlight.

Let me chase my chiaroscuro world. Someone else will paint the in-betweens. Into the darkness I will draw my own laughter.

Have you ever encountered a particularly memorable crepuscular ray display? Where was it? What was your reaction? Share your story in the comments!

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