Skilled technicians with the right equipment create concert and video light shows that dazzle viewers. An important component of such expertise is that anyone, anywhere can ooh and aah at color and light shifting like a living kaleidoscope. Kansans don’t have to wait for light shows to come to town. They only have to look west each evening to enjoy award-winning productions the setting sun and our clear atmosphere create daily.
My grandfather, a lifelong western Kansan, first introduced me to Kansas sunsets when I was just a baby. I’m not certain who acquainted him with shades of gold shifting to deep purple, lavender, rose, orange, and magenta, but he was an certified enthusiast, an addiction he loved to share with friends and family. Once he acquired a camera, he photographed thousands of these moments that he turned into slide shows to entertain visiting grandchildren.
As our family car headed home to Kansas each summer, I sat in the back seat, thinking about Grandpa’s incredible pictures. To pass time, I imagined looking through his little frames that captured rose fingers piercing dusk’s lavender or bright yellow rays fanning across a backdrop of deep red-orange. Watching the sun drop over eastern Arizona and western New Mexico was a prelude to moments I would soon enjoy by my grandpa’s side. I looked forward to helping him arrange those tiny photos in the carousel projector and listening to the click, drop of each slide as the show progressed. I knew I could ask him to play his entire repertoire repeatedly, and he’d do it with a smile.
During my visits, he invited me to help him capture a few sunset shots. I don’t know if my cousins liked joining Grandpa to watch that golden orb drop into the western horizon, but I loved those flashes of time more than I loved watching his before bedtime presentations. I loved riding shotgun as we head west on dusty roads. Sometimes he’d let me steady the steering wheel while we searched for the perfect location for that evening’s shoot. However, he always snapped the pictures.
What I have learned since is that Kansas’s pure atmosphere contributes to these remarkable sunsets my grandfather captured over decades. Light reflects best in an unadulterated atmosphere, which explains why Kansas produces so many prime opportunities for photographers and painters. Our state doesn’t generate much smog, and frequent winds clear that out regularly. I don’t know if Grandpa Cliff knew the scientific details about this lucky combination, but his heart understood how blessed he was to live in this place.
My family lived and traveled all over the West, so I saw that golden wafer sink behind dozens of landscapes, including oceans, saguaro-filled deserts, and towering mountains. At every one of those last moments of light I felt awe, but not with the same intensity as when I watched a Kansas sunset drop alongside my grandpa. My mother’s father instilled not only a love of changing hues at dusk but also an appreciation for place.
What I learned from that granddad’s slides and time spent with him on his adventures was to value something many take for granted. As I look west at dusk, I cherish not only the unique beauty of every sunset but also the memory of a man who passed on his love of western Kansas evenings to me.