For most people, taking the time to watch the sun rise is a rare and poignant act, recalling romantic moments or exotic vacations. But for fourth-year Elliott Brannon, watching sunrises is no extraordinary affair. Throughout his college years, a period when some people rarely see morning, Brannon has made several hundred treks to see the sunrise at Promontory Point.
“It’s beautiful, I guess,” he said.
Brannon began his sunrise-watching expeditions as a first-year while fasting for Ramadan. After waking up before dawn to eat breakfast, walking east to see the sun rise over Lake Michigan seemed like a logical occupation for the early morning hours.
“I lived in Max my first year,” said Brannon. “It’s a long walk.”
By the end of Ramadan, however, Brannon was fiercely dedicated to the journeys.
“I wouldn’t check the weather at all, I would just come out,” he said. “And so many times, it would be completely cloudy and I’d just be sitting here…. I think I had a different reason for it then.”
Though he can no longer remember why he was originally so determined to witness sunrises—or at least the clouds that blocked them from view—the journeys have become a kind of tradition. Now Brannon continues to trek down to the Point three or four mornings a week, depending on forecasted cloud cover.
In his second year, Brannon set up a list host to coordinate outings with other students interested in seeing the sunrise. Since then, the group has sprawled across a network of 80 to 90 sunrise-watchers, most of whom found out about the group through word of mouth.
“I knew Elliott because we both unicycle,” said third-year Willy Chyr. “And I think a friend told me he had a sunrise group. I wasn’t really surprised that Elliott had it.”
As a weathered sunrise-watcher, Brannon readily acknowledges the various challenges people face in making the trip.
“Not only is the sunrise early, not only is the sunrise cold in the winter of Chicago, not only must you journey all the way (and back) to Lake Michigan…not only must you talk to anyone that does show up, not only does staring at the sun cause retinal damage...” reads a list host e-mail he wrote in September.
In fact, for the latter reason, Brannon’s sunrise endeavors have taken some criticism.
“One day I was out here with a couple of my friends watching the sunrise and this lady walks by and she says, ‘Oh you’re watching the sunrise, that’s really cool,’” said Brannon. A few days later, however, she had changed her tune.
“She starts harassing us about—you know, she works at the hospital, some of her patients have severe retinal burns. [She said] we shouldn’t watch the sunrise anymore because it’s going to happen to us too,” he said. “And then we’ve never seen her again.”
For Brannon, people-watching is a highlight of the regular sunrise trips.
“Another time I saw this lady carrying around a bag of carrots,” he said. “In the summer there are a lot of rabbits around here. So whenever she’d see a rabbit she’d take one of these huge carrots and throw it at the rabbit, and the rabbit would of course run away and never come back.”
Meeting other sunrise-watchers also keeps trips interesting.
“You know what’s great about it?” Chyr said. “A lot of times people will show up, and you kind of meet different people and have different conversations.” After some sunrises Chyr attended, he and his fellow sunrise-watchers ate donuts, breakfasted at Valois, or practiced yoga together. One day in May last year, Chyr and Brannon rode their unicycles to the sunrise.
Semi-organized sunrise-watching appeals to many people simply by virtue of its quirkiness.
“It’s like juggling,” Chyr said of the trips. “It’s just cool. And it’s a good start to the day, to get up at five and bike through Hyde Park.”
The beauty of the sunrise itself also plays an obvious part in its appeal to observers, especially as the seasons change.
“It’s really nice when sometimes in the winter—it didn’t happen two years ago, but it happened the other two years—the lake will freeze over on the top,” said Brannon, “and you can watch the sunrise over all the light glinting off.”
But after watching the event so frequently, Brannon’s sentimentality for the average sunrise has waned. He said he likes mornings when the sun briefly makes an appearance, and then disappears behind another layer of clouds.
“That way you know it’s over,” he said.