On a recent morning in Yellowstone National Park, a few of us woke at dawn. Most of the campers were still nestled deep in their sleeping bags. We piled groggily into a car and drove toward the Hayden Valley.
A thick blanket of fog covered the valley floor. We watched two 10-point bucks graze in a meadow. A lone bison stood sentinel along the river. Another bison, aggravated by the traffic, stormed down the road in our direction, her tail aloft, steam coming from her nostrils. We waited, our breath held, as she passed us by inches and continued on her way.
All of this before 8 a.m.
I've long been a proponent of early mornings, the hours before the world shakes itself awake. There's a magic to those blue hours of dawn. They are moments of solitude, before the masses rouse to distract and interrupt, siphoning off our willpower and attention.
I believe, as the Queen of Hearts declares in "Alice in Wonderland," in doing "six impossible things before breakfast."
I love hitting the stores right when they open, when the floors are still slick from the overnight wax and the front windows are squeaky clean, when the oranges are still mounded in neat pyramids and the cashiers are fresh-faced and smiling.
I love hitting the streets for a run or the gym for a lift right out of bed, coming home just in time to pull the kids from their beds and begin the day. I love writing or reading while the mind is a blank canvas, full of possibilities.
But my greatest joy comes when traveling. I love to walk a city at first light. It's a secret I tell every European traveler, to get out into the streets ahead of the crowds. Thus, I've had all of Rome to myself, sitting solo on the Spanish steps and admiring Michelangelo's statue of Moses at the St. Peter in Chains church with just a smattering of like-minded early birds. New York City's Times Square I find unbearable by night, but by morning it is tolerable, almost peaceful.
Once, several years ago, we took the family to Puerto Rico for an academic conference. While the kids slept, my husband and I rose before the heat of the day hit full force, and ran along the blue cobblestone streets to a small grocery store in Old Town San Juan. Laden with fresh papaya, mango and pan de agua still steaming in its paper sack, we jogged back to the hotel.
Now, years later, the beaches and rainforest are a distant memory, but our children still recall with fondness waking to a breakfast of fresh fruit and hot bread spread across the hotel table like manna from heaven.
This past week we stayed the night in San Francisco (we are still in the midst of an epic road trip). My son Addison is trying to log the required cross-country miles to prepare for the upcoming high school season.
"Get up early," I told him, "and run the city. Trust me, it will be the best thing you do here."
He was skeptical. Both he and my husband are night owls. Peeling them out of bed is like trying to skin a porcupine — it's best done wearing leather gloves and a mask.
Still, with my encouragement, the bleary-eyed pair dutifully climbed out of bed and laced up their running shoes. They were gone a long time. I traced their route in my head, because I had done it myself, years before. They loped past Pier 39, 40, 41, watching the fishing boats set off into the bay, watching the fog rise over Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, watching the swimmers in their wetsuits brave the open waters as they pulled long strokes through the choppy surf.
Five miles of the best sight-seeing in the Bay Area, all without the crowds.
I'm not sure why the morning hours work their magic. I only know they do. There's another quote I use often: "She who rises early runs ahead of the day."
Perhaps it's that. When you rise early, you take the day on your own terms. You commandeer the sun, pulling dawn into morning like the Greek god Helios. Or like the very mortal people that we are, we greet each day like the miracle that it is, another day of bison and bread, fish and bridges, all best seen on foot by the morning light.