The sky observed while driving: Notes from a November afternoon and twilight on the road

November 19, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 19, 2014

On Tuesday, I drove down from the New York metropolitan area to Durham, North Carolina. A little before 4 p.m., while I was motoring south on Interstate 95 in central Virginia, I noticed that a cloud was creating a rainbow.

The sky was mostly clear, but one cloud hung relatively low in front of me. The edges to my right — the trailing edges, I presume — were wispy, and these tendrils of vapor were refracting light from the late-afternoon sun. Small patches of red, yellow and blue faintly shimmered. It was a beautiful and strange sight to behold.

I was wearing sunglasses at the time — the only pair of prescription sunglasses that I can remember owning. I’ve observed that they bend light in ways that normal prescription spectacles do not. For instance, shortly after I first purchased these glasses, in late 2009, I walked into my house and noticed that the displays on my clock-radios all appeared to be marred. It was a frigid day — this specific day may have been Jan. 1, 2010 — and I’d turned down the heat before leaving the house. I imagined that the LED crystals had cracked in the cold.

I was in a rush, so I had only a moment or two to inspect the readouts. Later, when I returned home, the devices seemed fine. I eventually deduced that the displays were undamaged, but they looked a certain way when viewed through the sunglasses. I’ve also noticed that when I’m walking or bicycling around in strong sunlight while wearing these sunglasses, light glints off of shiny objects in strange ways.

So yesterday, as the sky was peacocking a small personal rainbow for me, I wondered: Was it really there, or was I just being duped by an optical illusion generated by my tinted prescription lenses?

It was still quite bright out, so I was unwilling to switch spectacles. But a couple of times, I did lower my sunglasses and squint at the sky. When I did this, I still saw colorful refracted light.

That would have to do. The miniature rainbow — well, it was more of a would-be rainbow — was real.

The sun began setting an hour or so later as I moved southeast southwest on I-85 toward the state line. At one point, the clouds were arrayed in a pattern I’d never seen before. They seemed to form a set of parallel lines moving from lower left to upper right. Each line was bright white and of uniform thickness. It seemed that an enormous elementary schooler had been meticulously scrawling over a blue transparency with a white crayon of cosmic proportions.

I kept on driving. The sky kept on shifting. The blue color dimmed into gray. The clouds merged into an amorphous, continuous mass. The cloud colors were phenomenal, as they so often are at twilight: Here pink, there purple, orange in this stretch. It was like an industrial accident on the floor of a paint factory. Or perhaps what I was seeing in the sky was the smeared, sprawling palette of some monstrous, invisible artist?

Big trees clustered on the shoulders of the highway somewhere south of the small town of Oxford, which is the seat of rural Granville County, North Carolina. Dark silhouettes massed menacingly over the strip of asphalt. Individual branches broke away from the crowd, exposing threatening claws. Surely these monsters were waiting to pounce on the cars speeding past their feet.

The Eastern Seaboard continued turning away from the sun, and most of the dome above my car was dark blue or gray. But the horizon was limned by a glowing apricot band. It was a remnant of the daylight which was disappearing, and which would return again in the morning.

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