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Watching Rainbows

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There's a lot to see if only you look for it... on the Scenic Route

I’m outbound from Sandpoint, waiting on a red light with others cars and drivers at the corner of Idaho 200 and Kootenai Cutoff Road. As we wait, a bright fragment of color appears dead ahead, over the top of the Coldwater Creek parking lot away out against the Cabinets. It’s the disconnected north end of a rainbow.

Just beyond the signal, the highway swings due east for the passage through Kootenai. After the light turns green and our lineup begins east, there appears out past Kootenai Point, maybe as far as the Green Monarchs, the opposite end of the unbuilt arc, bright against a blue-black wall of rain beating its way into the mouth of the Clark Fork. The footings have been laid for a local version of Bifrost.

In the meantime, a burgundy Land Rover or Land Cruiser or whatever it is that was directly behind me at the light—with “H” prefixed 7-B plates—swerves right and accelerates smartly past me in the outside lane. The SUV swings back in just before the right lane quits at the entrance to Lignetics and falls in behind the rest of the row of traffic. It tucks in 30 feet behind the car in front of it and stays there.

“Smartly,” in this sense, has nothing to do with intelligence. The driver is in a hurry, I think, and I wasn’t proceeding quickly enough to suit him—or her.

As we move past Kootenai, I hang back several hundred feet from the mob and watch a couple of things simultaneously: the road and the impending rainbow. I feel safe doing this, because the bumper in front of me is a long ways away; much farther than 30 feet. While the driver of the SUV watches the bumper of the car in front of him or her, and the driver of the car in front of the SUV watches the bumper of the car in front of him or her—also about 30 feet away—I watch a rainbow happen.

It fades and flares as the light changes. A segment grows in the sky. Another shrinks away. It hints that it might be a double if it was to reach full maturity.

Rainbows, in their physical form, are sunlight reflected prismatically by falling rain. The colors are the spectrum of visible light, beginning at the top of the bow with red and progressing downward through orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and finally, violet. As a natural phenomenon, they are very explicable and somewhat predictable. When the sun gets to a certain and relatively low degree above the horizon and shines through and reflect off of water droplets traveling through the air, rainbows happen.

As a bit of Ma Nature’s handiwork, they are much more than predictable events. They are awesome pieces of magic. Ask any kid. They happen in late afternoon and early evening most often, because that is when the sun is in the proper aspect. But they sometimes happen in the morning, too. Just not as often. Which makes morning rainbows more magic. Through rarity, you understand.

But evening rainbows are still fully magic. Especially big, bright double rainbows stretching unbroken across the sky. We make wishes on such things. And think of pots of gold and God’s promise—particularly the one to never drown us all again. Although for a while there in mid-June, I thought She might have forgotten.  

The Norse believed the rainbow was Bifrost, the bridge from the mortal world to Asgard, home of the gods. The Aboriginals of Australia see the rainbow as the snake who is the Creator in the Dreaming, the never-ending period that began with the creation of the world and continues forever into the future. For Bhuddists the rainbow is “the highest state achievable before attaining Nirvana, where individual desire and consciousness are extinguished.”

After I chased bits and pieces of it across the top of the lake, the bow formed into a continuous but mostly hidden sky bridge behind the trees at Carter Creek, faded completely away at Cougar Creek, and finally revealed itself fully above Clark Fork before taking the rest of the evening off.

The driver of the SUV—and the person directly in front of them—turned off the highway at the east end of Sunnyside road. When they did, I began counting—one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three. After one zipped past me like they were going to a fire in Kootenai and riding their neighbor’s bumpers for about six miles, they beat me to their turn by six seconds. It’s anybody’s guess if either of them saw any vestige of a rainbow. Or how green our world is right now. Or the wild, dark fury of a rainstorm cresting the Cabinets. Or anything at all, for that matter—besides their neighbor’s bumper.

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

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driving, The Scenic Route, rainbows

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