Having placed my cameras and committing them to their posts for the night, I returned to my telescope at the upper end of the boat launch. The tasks of drift-aligning the mount and finding the exact film plane focus occupy me for the next hour. During this time, another visitor arrives from the campground, a man in his late twenties, early thirties perhaps–it’s harder to assess the character of my visitors after dark. Mike, a laid-off telecommunications worker, was a victim of the industry’s own productivity during the boom of internet and telephone excess. He was a “fiber-puller” and now that the country had connected every hub to every other hub with more bandwidth than could be fully used, there was no more work for him. I wondered if there was a similar moment when the major cities had finally been connected by railroad. Did we then have a surplus of steel men, unaware that the tracks they had just laid would serve for the next century?
Mike was content to talk and ask questions as I was performing my setup, and also content to look through the eyepiece at the nondescript target star I was using to do my alignment, without pressuring me to see anything more significant. I think he had the same desire as Holly to connect with the sky; he had found his way to my circle of equipment, but his interest was more diffuse. Like most who make an effort to be outdoors in remote places, he enjoyed the grandeur of the night sky, and wanted in some way to share his feeling with someone he suspected would be sympathetic.
Mike’s stories of camping out with his brother, of the locations he’d been while installing fiber lines, and other topics kept me company during the otherwise unexciting wait periods while drift-aligning. He didn’t mind that from time to time I would divert my attention to the faint target in the eyepiece’s crosshairs and make slight adjustments to the azimuth and elevation of the mount. Eventually I could reward him with a view of the Pleides, rising in the east, taking the opportunity myself to drink in this cluster of bright stars before beginning the next phase of the night’s session.
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.