On Stargazing

Last weekend we drove out East, through towns that we’d never heard of, some of which could barely be called towns so much as little crops of houses that looked like they sprang up from the ground like groves of trees in the expanse of plains and farmland, brown and fallow. I wanted to see something big. I wanted to feel small.

Preparing to go see a dark sky is not as simple as it seems. There are scales of darkness and light pollution that dictate how much you can see of the sky. Folks who live in the middle of urban areas, like I do, can attest — if they ever do decide to look up, which I’ve found many folks don’t think to do, but once I started doing it, I couldn’t stop — that only the brightest objects can fight their way through to reach you. It’s not darkness that this old light has to overtake but other light. Millions of street lamps, headlights, and lit rooms make the atmosphere glow in a way that’s hard to see until you’re far enough away from it that it becomes a faint halo over the horizon, showing you which way home is. It makes it easy to forget the stars are there, to think the world we live in is big.

With daylight savings time behind us, the winter solstice still more than a month away, the sun calling it in for the night at 4 o’clock, the dark is already overstaying its welcome. We’ve had more than our share of darkness this year, more than our share of isolation, and even in the longest days of summer the days didn’t quite feel long enough to let us drink in all of the light we wanted, enough to feel it coursing through the blood. Christmas trees with twinkling lights have started to make early appearances in the windows around my neighborhood, and I understand the basic, wordless urge to beat back the dark and cold. That’s what these holiday festivities have been about for millennia, before they were given their Christian meaning — they were festivals of light, warmth, and joy, helping people abide through the hardest time of the year.

The dark yields opportunities, and Colorado has its fair share. So I scoured the Dark Sky Map, dragging the cursor across the dark gray areas of the map until I found the Queens State Wildlife Area and the town of Eads, 2.5 hours southeast of Denver. This location is most significant for being the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, which makes it an appropriate choice for the time of year when we should be contemplating the impact of American colonization, Western expansion, that legacy of bloodshed. Visitors can go to the Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site, which is dedicated to the memory of the atrocity, in which 675 Union soldiers slaughtered a community of Native American men, women and children. We plan to leave in daylight next time so we can pay our respects.

Getting there was relatively easy but, if you do decide to stargaze in a dark area, I recommend making the drive during the day. We didn’t leave early enough (hard to do given the sun’s aforementioned early disappearance) and ended up driving most of the way after sunset. Saturday was also a new moon (chosen intentionally for viewing conditions), so, no moonlight to give any relief to the surrounding plains desert. This isn’t an issue on the well-trafficked and lit I-70 East, but the second half of the drive, South-Southwest out of Limon, was all on Highway 287, which cuts to Queens SWA as the crow flies. Largely what appears to be a trucking route, 287 has no lamps, only reflective posts; your faith in your own vehicle and the lifespan of its headlights must be assured. As I drove, I kept remembering the night I learned my first car, a 1985 Honda Prelude, needed a new alternator. I was driving down a three-lane road near my parents’ house when everything abruptly turned off — no acceleration, no headlights, no dash lights, no electricity whatsoever — nothing but the orange glow of street lamps to use to coast to a stop. On 287, there would be nothing to hold the darkness back until the next line of headlights cruised by.

Once in Eads, we checked into the Cobblestone Inn, a basic and comfortable hotel, white sheets and continental breakfast out of place among the truck stops. We stopped there first to eat a dinner of sandwiches from a cooler and to get ready for the bracing wind and sub-freezing cold. Layers upon layers, hats, gloves, socks, those little hand warming pouches that you shake up and stick into your gloves and boots. Then we got in the car and drove south of Eads about 20 minutes, deep into the dark again.

The prominent feature of Queens SWA is its system of reservoirs: Nee Gronda, Nee Noshe, Nee Sopah, and Nee Skah, home to a diverse wildlife population that draws hunters, fishers, and birdwatchers in equal measure. A subtle left turn off of 287 takes you onto a gravel road and into a copse of trees; one more left into a dirt and gravel clearing that accounts for a parking lot, an ideal place to park, unnoticed in the deserted open space, tucked away in the pitch black night.

For a while, I fumbled amateurishly in the bitter wind, swinging the wide barrel of my Newtonian reflector telescope across the night sky, trying to locate Mars within its sights. In the city, with so little competition, Mars is a bright object, a leading man, faintly orange even to the naked eye; out in the dark, it has more company, and becomes part of a vast ensemble of luminous bodies. Eventually, I gave myself over to the enormity of a dark, moonless sky with just my own eyes, my husband and I tailgating with camp chairs and tea, bowled over by this grandeur not a half a day’s drive from our backyard. The Taurids meteor shower takes place yearly this time of year, hunks of rock and ice shed by the comet Encke hurtling into the atmosphere near the constellation Taurus (hence the name), rewarding watchers like us with a handful of bright, fiery streaks an hour that never stop provoking gleeful gasps of “Look!” and “I saw one!” The peak this year happened to coincide with the new moon so that even the fainter flashes of light were visible. Stargazing makes me feel childlike, full of possibility and curiosity. It’s the same feeling I have standing in front of the ocean, seeing so much of the horizon that you can see the curvature of the Earth. I’m a captive to it. It feels like an honor to be able to see and think about everything that exists, to exist myself, to know how inseparable I am from it.

Really good stargazing — the kind where you see but also really see — takes work and vulnerability and a little bravery, actually, and that’s what I like about it. I like the idea of a non-exploitative application of my effort, an activity that requires planning and some skill and some luck but serves no material benefit to anyone, existing merely to connect me to things in the real. Sometimes when when I feel tired and resentful all the way down to the physical, the “why” of everything curling up inside as an ulcer or a headache or a sore back, it is easy to look up at the sky and see something abstract, or worse, to not look up at all. But going out into the dark, we can start to understand a star as an incomprehensibly ancient ball of gas and fire suspended in space, whatever space is, anyway. We can be humbled by our inability to comprehend the number of years between the present moment and the moment the light left the stars. Whatever time is, anyway. The dark is a stiff drink; the cure for what ails you. It’ll put you right, give perspective, put you in context. It whispers that, as long as you are still alive and you are not depriving any other living thing of the privileges of existing, that’s enough, that that is actually everything.

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