You haven’t seen a real night sky until you’ve seen one high up in the mountains, beyond the city lights, beyond any communities, and well out of cell phone range. For someone like myself who has lived in the city all their life the night sky isn’t all that impressive unless there’s a prominent meteor shower or a comet or an unusually bright or colorful moon that night. Living in California’s Sacramento valley, which is around sea level, means we live in a smoggy dust bowl that wreaks havoc on the respiratory system as well as having the wonders of the night sky be obscured from sight.
Every year I looked forward to our summer rafting trips to the Sierra Nevada Mountains where we would camp out in tents under the stars. My first time there was the most memorable. I was fourteen and had no idea how wondrous nature was. I didn’t know that air could have a pleasant smell without some sort of artificial aerosol spray. Trees and flowers and shrubs are nature’s air fresheners and they do an awesome job. My lungs felt as if they had been wiped clean after a lifetime of breathing air that I could see when looking down into the valley from the mountain. I was especially awe stricken when the sun started to slip beneath the horizon and the stars gradually began to flicker in the night sky. At first it was no big deal with only a few of the brightest stars showing themselves. But as the sun finally left the scene the full glory of the cosmos was revealed to me for the first time in my life. I never imagined that there were so many stars out there. My whole life was a deception. The valley smog and dust and city lights had been a huge blind fold, but here I could see.
The Big Dipper was about the only constellation that I knew by name at the time and there it was, big and awesome. There were more stars than anyone could possibly count. It was then that I realized how vast the cosmos really was and how insignificant our tiny little world is in the big picture. I don’t think I slept a wink that night. I just laid in my tent with the top cover open, mosquito net in place, and went on a journey I had never been on before. Small specks of dust burning in the atmosphere, more commonly known as meteor showers, lasted only a few seconds but seemed to come at least every hour. Before then I had only seen them on TV. There were so many stars that, even without the moon and no man made lighting, I could see everything around me.
Although on a rafting trip, and don’t get me wrong the trip down the river crashing through rapids was great, but the awesome view of the Milky Way is what left the biggest impression on me. So much so that for the longest time I resented the city lights and the dusty air of the valley. It’s been years since I’ve seen the night sky in all its splendor and I can’t wait to see it again. If you’re from a big city and THINK you know what a real night sky looks like then I encourage you to get away, far out into the wilderness, if only for one night and see the night sky again for the first time just the way the ancients did.