At the most recent full moon, on October 13th, I headed out into the Mojave to watch the moon rise.
It’s something I used to do in college. In Provo, I lived within a five-minute drive of several gorgeous hiking trails in the Wasatch Range. I’d park my pickup at a trailhead parking lot, climb into the truck bed, wrap myself in a quilt, and watch the silvery moon calmly slip between the rocky peaks above me to the east. All this without having left the city limits.
I’ve missed the excursions: missed the peaceful glow and the still silence of the night. You never know how spoiled you are until you leave a place. Finding the time and space for moongazing became difficult when I moved to Santa Rosa, in part because I didn’t know the local terrain, and in part because I couldn’t quite justify driving “aimlessly” into the night. The same phenomenon happened in Madison. Venturing out for moon-viewing was silly. A waste of time and gasoline. Perhaps even unwise. Unsafe.
These are only excuses, and I’m unsure where my inner critic came up with them. Some slow accrual, I suppose. My grandmother expressing unease about local teenagers here, an unexpected encounter with an angry soi dog there. Narrowly avoiding a green pit viper coiled on the darkened sidewalk. The sense that lingering too long outside after dark was somehow nefarious. The tragic fact that casually staying up late into the night resulted in measurable misery during the next day’s projects.
But I love the moon, and I have for a long time. I’m drawn to the moon the way I’m drawn to a crackling campfire, to the roaring rhythm of the seashore, to a thunderstorm thrilling across the blackened sky. The attachment is more primal than intellectual, the sort of affection that suddenly blossoms fully-formed into conscious awareness, though it’s been quietly growing for ages and ages. Moonlight feeds my soul, somehow.
So I’ve taken to venturing into the Mojave to watch the full moon.
Unlike many cities, which sprawl into suburbs and even smaller communities for miles and miles in every direction, Las Vegas ends abruptly, shifting from city to desert in mere moments. The city exists like an island in a vast ocean of sand and yucca. The Mojave won’t support human life on its own. There’s really no use building out beyond the city’s carefully-planned infrastructure.
Far enough beyond the city, on desert side-roads away from freeway lights, the Mojave is dark in a way I’ve rarely known in my life (though I’ll admit I’ve known darker still). Even in Provo, tucked beneath my quilt in my truck bed, I’d parked on a mountainside overlooking the shimmering town. Street lamps lit the trailhead parking lot. The night was dark, but by no means dark.
Only thirty minutes beyond Las Vegas, the desert’s night sky dazzles with stars, so long as you keep the city at your back. The Milky Way arches overhead. Dark sandstone ridges rim the horizon and Venus oversees bats skimming between the agaves and the Joshua trees. And into this near-primordial darkness, the full moon rises.
Given the sliver of a chance, I’ll rhapsodize about the moon. When I glimpse her overhead during my daily comings and goings, a surprise crescent following close behind the sun in the clear blue day, I’ll point her out and speak to her. Give her compliments. Tell whomever I’m with how beautiful she is. It’s easier to breathe, somehow, when looking at the moon. Something deep beneath my ribs finds the moon more glorious and wondrous than most anything else, and when I spot her hovering in the sky above me, the feeling swells in my lungs and escapes in wild enraptured exclamations.
She is beautiful hovering over every city, every housing development, every garish billboard. She is lovely sailing above endless smoggy traffic. She is exquisite peering over brimming dumpsters and peeking between flashing neon signs and peeping out from behind shiny glass towers.
But in the Mojave’s darkness, the full moon dazzles like nothing else.
I used to raise my eyebrows at the thought of “moon shadows” when I’d find such things in my fantasy novels. Moonlight was bright, certainly, but not bright enough to guide your way at night. Not bright enough to justify journeying beyond daylight hours, even in an emergency. Certainly not bright enough to cast shadows.
We’ve grown too accustomed to artificial light in our modern world. The full moon is absolutely bright enough to cast shadows, to light the landscape. Even to obscure the stars.
Reflecting sunlight and transmuting gold into gentle silver, the moon illuminates the desert beyond modern expectations, revealing a monochrome faerie world of subtle shadow and pale glow. The world proceeds as though caught in an everlasting hushed space between day and night. Above it all, the full moon reigns in silent splendor, and even the awakened souls in the Las Vegas night are unaware of the marvel above.
All this, once every twenty-eight nights. In the realm of simple wonders, the moon is empress.
Have you ever gone moongazing for the sake of it? Where is your favorite spot for it? Let us know in the comments below!