The Watchman is the peak that dominates the campground at the south end of Zion National Park. This is a view up the valley of the Virgin River over an hour and a half period, at the end of which the moon rose and illuminated the canyon walls. Trees and camping vehicles were occasionally lit by the headlights of a late-to-bed car finding the way to its campsite.
At the boat launch, the sunset displayed clouds lacing the horizon, but everywhere else was pure sky. The transformation of colors from daylight blue to twilight teal induces a Pavlovian response in me. The clear skies are being dressed up in preparation for a nighttime romance. I am excited to assemble my telescope, eager to see the first stars and get it aligned and start making exposures. I know there will be some lengthy steps as I fine-tune the motorized axis to be truly polar, and then find the exact position where the light gets focused on the film, but I know these steps, I’ve practiced them and sometimes gotten them correct. Being at the top of a mountain in skies still pure and unpolluted gives me an invigorating thrill but also a sense of obligation. These opportunities are rare for me; I must take full advantage of them when they happen.
My activities at the boat launch do not go unnoticed. A common hazard of setting up a telescope is that there are many people who are intrigued by the night sky and have some internal personal connection with the stars, but the focus of their lives has not included a close study of it. We all have open sections of our soul that we cannot fill because of the circumstances of our lives, and for many, this hole of missing passion is for the night sky. Perhaps there is a primal yearning to know the skies as our species knew them for millennia, seeing the night, reading it, and using it as guidance to survive. Our evolutionary success has brought us to a place where we no longer need or notice the night sky.
Whatever the reasons, I frequently meet people whose curiosity brings them to my telescope. On this night it was Holly, and her school age daughter Lisa, staying at the (full) campground. My activities at the boat launch were visible from their campsite, and Holly, finding the need to fill her personal curiosity, and using her daughter’s education as her purpose, came over to find out what I was doing.
This is the kind of interaction I love to hate. I get to share my own passion and acquired knowledge of the skies with other people who are genuinely interested, but I then feel obligated to give them a tour of the sky. This is okay but it interferes with an already lengthy setup before I can open the shutter for the first time. It’s like being able to tell stories about “the one that got away” but in so doing, I don’t get to bait my hook for the next big one.
But Holly’s enthusiasm and appreciation is the reward, and I get to show her the nebula treasures in Sagittarius, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, and a few other showpieces in the sky. She melts with each view and then recovers enough to translate my descriptions into the vocabulary of a ten-year old while her daughter looks into the eyepiece at what to her must be just some fuzzy patch of sky.
Yet getting up on the stepstool to peer into a porthole of a large instrument is an unusual experience for nearly all of us, certainly for Lisa. Inside that eyepiece is a view of distant jewels, pinpoints of stars in an inky black background. Stars that we can’t otherwise see. And maybe the experience of seeing the unseen with the tools of an unknown man at the boat launch at the top of the world will make a connection later, in some science class, when the young girl is subjected to a more formal presentation of astronomy. Maybe it will inspire a curiosity that might not otherwise be there, the questions and answers filling the gap in her soul that, like her mom, wants to know more.
My own curiosity was nurtured by encouraging parents and so I will always make the time to fill the cups of curiosity brought by visitors. One can never repay the debt to parents; one can only pass the debt along. Holly is effusive in her appreciative thanks, and with the night now dark, and cooling rapidly, she retreats with her daughter to the warmth of their campsite, perhaps to share the experience with other family and friends. I turn my attention to the work at hand.
I returned to the campground as the sky lost its deep darkness to the dawn. I was tired now and falling asleep was an easy matter. Staying asleep was not. Campgrounds come to life at an early hour and become noisy collections of waking families preparing for a new day. The commotion subsided when most campers had driven off to their destinations. The midmorning sun, radiating through a cloudless sky, heated up my tent. Even after moving the tent into the shade I found it difficult to sleep. By 10:00 I gave up and decided that I might as well start traversing some more of the miles toward my appointment in Washington.
Heading west on blue highway 14, I share the road with rural traffic and the occasional bicyclist. I enjoy seeing the bicyclists; they ignite the memory of an earlier epoch in my life when I would bicycle for weeks through beautiful countryside, carrying everything, and camping along the way. Bicycling is just the right speed to experience the land. A car travels too fast, there is not enough time to truly let in the details of the terrain. Walking is too slow, the details become stale before you reach the next vista. But a bicycle brings you close, living and breathing the environment you travel through, giving you options to linger or to move on.
Another challenge in making photographs of the night sky
On a summer camping trip with my family some years ago, I attempted to make a star trail picture showing Mt Hood in Oregon as reflected in one of the nearby alpine lakes. Unfortunately, that remote location was not quite remote enough, and I found that other campers were intruding on my composition.