When I shared my plans for this past weekend with a co-worker, he laughed with sadistic glee, “Camping? In Texas? In August? You’re gonna sweat to death and the bugs will eat you alive.”
Although I protested that the overnight low in Strawn would dip to 73 degrees, he continued to scoff, “Oh, sure. It’ll get to 73, but not until 6 a.m. after you’ve spent a hot, sticky night swatting mosquitoes.”
I pretended his words didn’t worry me, but I was rattled. While mosquito spray and sleeping in a tent would minimize bug bites, there’s not much one can do to avoid the Texas heat, and the thought of tossing and turning in an unintentional sweat lodge for several hours did not thrill me.
On the other hand, we weren’t just camping, we were attending a Star Gazing Party. Our friend, Andy, scheduled it for the night of August 10th because that’s when this year’s Perseids meteor shower would be in full force.
I have special childhood memories surrounding this annual celestial event. When I was a kid and we lived on the edge of a wheat field in Pullman, Washington, my big sister and I would sleep outside for the entire month of August. We loved to stay up late, keeping our eyes out for meteors and listening to the yip of coyotes in the distance.
Up north, of course, sweating to death was not a concern. I had a flannel liner in my bag and wore a knitted cap to stay warm.
It wasn’t just seeing shooting stars that made those nights so magical, it was the conversations this setting provoked. Sure, we would talk about day-to-day stuff, but after a while the trivia would fall away and our chats would turn philosophical.
Staring out into space helped tear away the detritus of my gawky, unpopular self and put things into perspective. That’s what I love most about stargazing, how it blasts away pettiness, how it makes you feel little without feeling belittled.
I finally decided that spending a sweaty night as insect fodder was a small price to pay for a chance to experience that stargazing feeling again.
Our pal, Andy, has been camping at his friend’s ranch in west Texas for the past 20 odd years. When we first arrived, Andy took us on a short hike over to where his friend’s summer house stood until it was destroyed by a wildfire a couple years ago. It now stands as a monument to the power of nature to turn your dreams on their head. Although sobering and sad, the rusted remains of the house were beautiful, too, bathed in last light of the day. One could nearly pretend we were viewing a modern sculpture and not ranchhouse ruins.
On our walk back, we passed jackrabbits, a stockpond full of hungry turtles and a pile of cow bones. Sunset was in full glory, with colorful blue rays stretching from one end of the horizon to the other. The vastness of the scene sent the phrase, “big sky,” tumbling through my brain like a musical refrain. It made me regret not bringing my guitar.
Meanwhile, it felt like we were roadies for a celestial show as Andy and the rest of the crew set up his telescope and a big pair of binoculars on a stand. I don’t know much about telescopes, but the label on Andy’s reads, “Sky Designs 20″ F/4 Intergalactic Photon Receptor.”
After setting up the gear, Andy coaxed us into a circle around the viewing devices and let us settle in. It took us all a little while to shake off the concerns of the day, nibble our snacks and get comfy.
In his email invitation for the Star Party, Andy asked us all to bring something to read out loud, so we took turns doing that. I shared Johannes Kepler’s ode to the telescope: “”You much knowing tube, more precious than any scepter,” a Carl Sagan anecdote in which he blurts out that, “Jesus Christ was an extraterrestrial!” and a few excerpts from the liner notes to Timothy Ferris’ documentary, “Seeing in the Dark.”
Other readings included a poem written expressly for the ocassion, Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” historic information about the Comanche moon (since we were camping in Comanche territory) and more.
All of that, however, was just the pre-show. Up next, was the Perseids meteor shower itself, and it kicked off with a bold display: the very first meteor of the night was fat, sparkly and left a bright trail as it streaked from one end of the sky to the other.
Andy suggested we come up with something better than the knee-jerk, “ooh, aah, and wow!” for each shooting star, so I proposed shouting, “Stella!” Not only is this Latin for “star,” but it gave us an excuse to bellow like Marlon Brando’s character in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Although it never reached the 100 meteors per hour predictions I’d read around the web, we did see a lot of shooting stars. When sightings would ebb, Andy walked us around the sky, pointing out interesting features such as how the teapot constellation pours water onto the scorpion and creates steam (steam being the Milky Way.) He’s very good at this, so it was easy to follow along.
Andy also used the binoculars and telescope to show us several galaxies, nebulae and globular clusters. (As an aside, “globular clusters” makes me think of something you’d hear in a candy bar ad: “creamy nougat, crunchy outer-coating and globular clusters on the inside.” Not to be eaten by the intergalactose intolerant, of course!)
Fireflies were another thrill of the evening! I had not seen them in years and while it was a treat to see them winking through the scrubby landscape, the Perseids meteor shower was the true belle of the ball.
Although no one wanted to close their eyes, the last of us finally conked out around 4 a.m. I should also add that despite my co-worker’s dire predictions, the night was delightfully cool and, even though I packed mosquito spray, there wasn’t a bug in sight.
What about you? Have you ever gone stargazing? If you get a chance, I encourage you to host or attend a Star Party of your own. (Oh, and here are a couple tips: wrap red cellophane around your flashlight to help maximize your night vision, and don’t let anyone talk you out of your plans.)