dark sky park, part 2. june 15th.

i was too excited to sleep on thursday night, as i knew i would be.

i only got a few hours' worth of a nap and went to work on friday morning. i woke up at 530. it was awful.

i had a few things to load into the car, namely packing the cooler and taking my camera and overnight bag and packing that. kit had loaded mostly everything in the night before.

work was busy enough to keep my mind off of things, and then it was noon.

and then i was lugging ice to the cooler.

we left at 1251. we hit traffic about ten minutes in, if that. it was awful. parking lot on the interstate.

about thirty minutes later, we pulled off for gas and food and drinks.

and then we were really off.

we talked about our days and joked around.

every time kit would say something snippy (in a joking way) or catty (in a loving way), i'd point out her window and yell, 'OUT.'

so that became the first of many running jokes.

somehow, typing this now, it has lost all meaning. not to me, but i'm thinking that this entire narrative is going to be one of those 'you had to be there' things. because half of it was in the facial expressions.

we took the turnpike for a long time. from beginning to end, i think. i've only driven it one other time, and i never went that far north.

so we start the iphone pin dropping. and begin to make the journey well away from the city.

into the countryside, where cows and horses hang about on the side of the road.

we took a wrong turn, onto a road we were supposed to catch further down the line. but we didn't sweat it.

we should have. it was a rough road for maybe an hour, winding about through the biggest barns i've ever seen in my life. cattle ranches, pastures, it was unreal.

so we're winding and weaving, and have to make a pit stop. in a beer store that had a sign pointing to a restaurant. we never did find the alleged restaurant.

but we found the beer store. and they only sold things in cases of thirty, so kit peed. i asked the guy inside if he knew how far it was to the park we were going to. he didn't know. the guy behind me said his brother was there.

the guy behind him said, 'better'n an hour.'

so we got into the car. we'd thought we were much closer. but we weren't.

so we drove some more.

and what we ran into next was altogether different. it was a road that runs through miles upon miles of national park wilderness.

at one point, the road dipped down, and ahead of us was a wall of road that seemed to be at a 45 degree incline. kit was taking pictures of the forest out her window.

and then there was this blanket of purplish flowers. as far as the eye could see. it was brush. it was incredible.

forever, everywhere you looked. purple flowers and woodlands.

and then it happened.

i hit a squirrel.

i was only going maybe forty, tops. the road was so decayed that i had to drive down the middle, and only got onto my side of the road when i couldn't see over a hill in the road, in case of oncoming cars.

the thing ran right out in front of my car.

i hit the brakes, but didn't slam them, and when i looked in the rearview, it was spinning in a circle to a stop in the middle of the road.

i had to tell myself that i just knocked it out for a second, and that once i was over the hill, it got up, shook its head, and ran off into the woods.

i fought tears.

but then it was prettier, and we reached a sign that said we were at 2175 feet, and we were very very close. we stopped to take a picture and let miss b catch her breath.

there were entire portions of the drive, for ten minutes at the most, where i had the car in neutral coasting down mountain roads, riding the brakes. it reminded me of the drive to my grandparents' house, which probably has spans of ten to twenty minutes in neutral.

coming over a hill, i asked, 'is that a mirage?'

as i got closer, i saw that it was in fact tire tread. but kit cracked me up by saying, nonchalant, 'it's a dinosaur!' in a cute little kid voice.

and then we drove a bit further. and then we were there.

we pulled in and parked, and checked in. the old man was very sweet and very fixated on telling us all about the raffle on saturday. and about the extra tickets we could buy for it.

we scoped out the lay of the land.

it was a huge airfield. all grass. the astronomical field.

it was divided up into sections that were named. we realized on saturday that we were camping in orion. which has sentimental value to both kit and i.

so we looped around. found the food vendor tent, and the bathrooms. and then looked for a place to light. it was about 7 when we got there, i guess. it was packed. people had been there since tuesday or wednesday. the star party started on thursday, and we got in on friday night, so we didn't have too many choices.

right away, when i parked, this bitchy looking girl gave me a look. i asked her if i was in an okay spot as i took the tent out of the car to pitch it before the sun started to set.

she got into her lexus and said that we were in the way, and that we should move over.

this was the first interaction with the star people, and i was not impressed.

so then we start laying out the pieces. i've never pitched a tent before. but there were only stakes, poles, and the tent.

as we start piecing together the poles and checking out the size of the open tent, our 'backyard' neighbor came over.

he was an older guy. in his sixties, with white hair. he talked like he was half deaf, and said that we might have an easier time if we did it a different way.

star people interaction number two. and i'm thinking that this guy thinks that because we're girls, we can't pitch a tent. and that, being a man, he needed to intervene and assist.

again, not impressed.

but i was wrong about him.

his name was guy. i kept thinking of his as being gus.

we got the tent set up, and made our 'beds' and set up our chair and tables.

we felt good, it was early. and it didn't take long to figure out that all of these people spent time in daylight tinkering with their telescopes for the big show after dark.

guy's buddy, dave, came over at some point to say hi. the two of them traveled from ohio for the party. they had huge separate tents, but otherwise were there together.

dave was sweet and adorable and also in his sixties with white hair. and i kept thinking of him as being named mike.

that's how dave and guy became gus and mike for the weekend.

we walked around the field, checking out people (and boys, of course) looking at telescopes and meeting super friendly star people who would have a conversation about just about anything.

there were the weird star people, who probably wear unicorn tee shirts in their day to day. scraggly men with crazy hair in ponytails. there were nerdy star people, who look like they push their glasses up the bridge of their noses a lot. there were normal people, like us. who have normal day jobs and normal families and normal lives in normal places. who escape to the forest to get away from the normalcy. there were retired people, and kids running around talking about galaxies in ways that i couldn't comprehend, who have been raised to know more than i do.

they were the star people. they were honest and nice and generous. no one was bitchy or territorial, which was a nice shift for me. everyone left everything laying around while they meandered. and it was safe to do so. it was pretty remarkable.

so the woman who told me to move my car was a damper. she was so loud and rude, mean and bitching at her kids and her husband. and she was wearing a clingy skirt and boob shirt. no one camps in shit like that. it really annoyed the piss out of me.

but she was on our bad side, and we hated her. we were guessing at what she did for a living, and feeling sorry for her husband. and i looked at her, between scrabble plays. we were talking about her in terms of 'it' so she wouldn't know. and kit hoped that she wasn't a schoolteacher, but thought she was in real estate. i thought she nailed it. found out much later that she was, in fact, a teacher. poor kids.

anyway, she was bitching up a storm and i looked at her a minute later. and she smiled at me. i probably scrunched my eyebrows in confusion, but looked away from kit and whispered, 'it smiled at me.' which caused a wave of laughter that didn't cease for a while.

and then, it wasn't long before the sun was below the horizon. camp came alive.

everyone was excited for the night ahead. people were training their telescopes on the rising planets, because they are visible before most other things.

we saw venus first.

and venus was kinda boring, honestly. it was super bright white.

next, dave got saturn in his telescope, and the first of many 'hey, girl....s' was called to us.

he never attempted to learn our names, which made me feel less bad about referring to him as mike. and i guess he was old school enough to think it was okay to call any woman 'girl'. i grew to like it.

so we excitedly went over to where his scope was pointing up. kit let me go first.

and i stared with my mouth open. there were a lot of 'oh my god's throughout the course of the weekend. i like to romanticize this as being the first, but it might not have been.

i stared. i couldn't believe that i'd been waiting so long and was finally seeing it. i thought i'd cry, but i didn't. and i just thought that it's not that it's so brightly colored, or that you could see it to a scale bigger than a b.b. pellet, but that it was really out there. shining away in the night sky for part of the year. and that i'd probably seen it a hundred times, and just assumed that it was a star.

through the eyepiece, it just looked like a white dot with a white line through it. they were saying that in two years from now, its axis will make it so that we're looking at the top or bottom side of the planet, and that you can see the ring around the circle completely, with the gap between. and that you'll be able to see individual dust rings that make up what, from this angle, appears to be a skinny solid line.

it's going to be amazing. i promised kit that no matter where we are in our lives and where we are living, that we would reconvene on the dark sky park and see it in all its splendor.

so that was the first time i saw saturn. i am already forgetting details (i thought it was the first thing i saw, but it was actually after venus). but i think dave instructed me to go back to the loaner scope and find it.

so i did.

and THAT was when i truly lost it.

i looked to where i knew it was.

and found it. just sitting there, in space. with its little ring and two little moons. and tears came to my eyes, and my chin started to crumble.

i was laughing and smiling, but i was crying. i had to look away. it was just too awesome. literal sense of the word.

i let kit see, and she gave me a giggly 'awwww' at my crying, and rubbed my shoulder, which made me cry harder.

and i just kept repeating, 'i just can't believe it. i can't believe i can see it. i can't believe it.'

looking at my shoes, planted firmly on the viewing field grass. feeling like i had achieved some major goal in my life.

i saw saturn. i found saturn. i saw it again.

we must have looked at it several more times, but after that, the darkness started to cover the camp, and dave and guy were teaching us constellations.

kit knew a lot of them. stargazing was so far removed from my life that i had forgotten all but orion (which was not visible) and the big dipper.

turns out the big dipper is super important, so it was a good one to remember. but we learned what it pointed to and how you use it as the edge pieces in a giant puzzle to fill in the gaps and create the big picture.

something really cool happens at sunset. at star parties, it's a well known fact that white light destroys night vision. for this reason, all lights are covered in red shields.

imagine four hundred people with red flashlights dangling from their necks. actually, maybe only three hundred. the other hundred had red headlamps, like star spelunkers.

it was really neat. the bathrooms were well lit, all with red lights.

i've only ever been creeped out by red light and red light bulbs. and i've never had much experience in dark rooms to counteract that. but all of this red light was like a lifestyle choice, and i loved it.

i put red tissue paper over the lights inside my car, so we could dig and hunt for things in the night. we even had a little red lantern, lighting our table so we could play scrabble.

that first night was just magical.

at the same time, it was dizzying. vertigo-inducing. something about looking up while standing, for prolonged periods of time, really fucks with your equilibrium and vision. and i felt like i was shitty drunk, but hadn't had a sip to drink. we kept having to sit down and just lean back in the chairs to see the sky in general, because it was really overwhelming in the beginning.

around ten or so, it was completely dark on all sides. the beauty of this airfield was that it gives you a 360 degree view of the sky. there were tall pines, but they didn't block much from view.

when a meteor would soar overhead, you'd hear sighs and ooohs and aaaahs from all around, a random scattering of people who were lucky enough to see the same thing i saw at the exact same time.

and it was about that time that it became increasingly difficult to navigate your way through the sky. the big dipper stayed the easiest to find, but everything else was lost in star soup.

we learned about the summer triangle, what to look for near vega and deneb. much later, probably around two am, we learned about the teapot. and the clouds of the milky became less hazy and more clear.

kit had to explain to me what i was actually seeing, but it goes something like this:

our sun was behind us and under us, globally speaking. and we were looking out through the clouds of the milky way, toward other galaxies. it didn't look as defined as i thought that it would. they looked like normal clouds, only they didn't move. and though i didn't specifically do it, when you aim a telescope into the clouds, millions of other things are strewn throughout it.

later, much later, the teapot rose. the teapot is the top half or so of sagittarius. astronomers love the teapot, because there's a lot to see in it. globular clusters (billions of stars all in a tiny space. it looks like a little fuzzball, only some of the stars can be deciphered from the others. the tiniest pixels of light, condensed together).

and later still, maybe around three or a bit after, cassiopeia was high enough in the sky that she was pointing at andromeda. and somewhere in that vicinity, the andromeda galaxy. kit was fortunate enough to see it through binoculars. i couldn't make them work for me, enough to see something that made sense, so i saw it through a telescope.

an entire other galaxy. that is on a collision course with our very own. horrifying, and beautiful.

(to take a break here, and discuss life on other planets... to think that there are billions of galaxies out there, with sun-like stars and planets in orbit... i know that we cannot be alone. i just know it. it's statistics. i'm not saying they look like us and talk like us, or that we would ever even know they exist. but there has to be something like earth around something like our sun, hanging around space. living and breathing and eating and communicating.)

anyway, the collision is something like four billion years off, or something like that. so nothing to be afraid of. but it's still pretty amazing.

and there was the square of pegasus, which has the m31 globular cluster. and i want to say the swan nebula (it looks like a long stream of smoke, trailing through the sky), and also want to say the ring nebula, which the star people jokingly call the dirty donut.

there's a double star over there, too. one is blue and one is gold. and you can see them distinctly, and their colors are very real.

and then, around four am, people started crashing out. we decided it was time for a night cap. kit had a beer, i poured a coctail. and we sat, giddy and dazed, too excited for sleep. but entirely exhausted all the same.

we fell out around four thirty, if i had to guess. it took me a while. and, how i have work dreams about coffee shop life, i had dreams about stargazing. i was looking all over in my sleep, staring at the sky.

it poured overnight. i remember hearing it for about three seconds, but must have fallen back asleep, because i missed the rest of the rain. sleeping out in it must have lulled me into deep sleep.

the heat from our sun became unbearably hot in the tent around 730. and i had to pee too bad to sleep any longer, so i was up and about after a three or four hour long nap.

star people are funny during the day. they nod off during lectures, they sleep, they drink more coffee still (which is the approach we adopted). they sit in chairs under canopies and talk shop. they mill about other camps, and talk about their toys and things they saw the night before.

it's a sedated version of the camp at night.

everyone is exhausted.

there weren't showers (i didn't die, though i thought i was going to), but i'd come prepared to sponge bath, and i did. turns out that slightly soapy wet paper towels work quite nicely, and that baby wipes would probably be an invaluable commodity at a time like that.

got dressed for the day, and wandered around.

we hit two lectures, one was about the mythology surrounding the constellations and the stories and images of what people saw when they looked up at night.

it didn't really get to me as much as it blew kit's mind. she just tripped out on the fact that for thousands of years, humans were looking at the same things we were. naming them, creating stories to teach others about them.

i mean, it's crazy to me. but she was really lost in it for a while.

he shared native american stories, sumerian stories (who i was already really into), and of course greek and roman stories.

the second lecture was about the hubble space telescope.

it was pretty cool, the speaker was this guy from 'sky and telescope' magazine, which is the go to resource for all things amateur astronomy.

he was funny, not boring, and the images were spectacular. i knew some of what he was talking about, but not all.

then there was the raffle. we bought extra tickets, trying to win a pair of binoculars and i tried to win a beginner's toy set. but we didn't get lucky.

dave, however, won a fantastic eyepiece. when he won, kit and i cheered loudly.

we knew, selfishly, that because he won, we won. the view that night would be even more incredible. it was a really nice prize. it was the one thing he really really wanted.

it was great.

there was a mass exodus when they drew the last ticket for the last prize.

we knew, driving up there, that there was a chance we'd be leaving saturday to come back, because severe thunderstorms were headed right for us. and everyone was talking about how, even if it didn't rain, the cloud cover was supposed to be a totality, and that we wouldn't be able to see a thing.

so more than half, maybe two thirds, of the people left. maybe even more. it was a ghost town.

on the upside, it was more quiet, and less crowded. on the downside, two thirds of the other telescopes left with them.

still, it was great. and the monster telescope stayed, and dave and guy stayed.

after the raffle, they were still preaching impending doom and gloom, and shitty stargazing weather. but so far, the storm had blown around us. it sprinkled for only a minute. by the time we got under covering, it was over.

so we decided to stay.

and were rewarded.

that night, monster scope was pointed at saturn just after sunset.

what a show. it's not that it is bigger, but there is this minute level of clarity you gain with a thirty two inch mirror.

when you climb the ten foot ladder to look in the eyepiece, what you see is this:

same bright ball that is saturn. maybe an extra moon that was too tiny to see before. but this is the clencher: you see the shadow of the ring on the planet itself.

the night before, it had just looked like a white light with a white line through it. in this scope, you could see clearly the planet and the ring, and the shadow. unbelievable.

it was supposed to be public night, where anyone can come and see things for free, through the scopes that are set up there.

and they canceled public night, due to the predicted storms.

only the storms never showed up.

the clouds did, however.

at this point in the trip, the cooler had grown funky. the ice was soupy and barely frozen at all. there were bugs and grass and dirt and food bits floating around in it. two cucumbers had sunk to the bottom, surrounded by cream and bacon and sausage and atkins shakes and atkins bars, which were floating in baggies. there were five beers left, and i had my stoli vanil and diet coke in there, too. i got a cup of ice from the food stand to take back and reserve; half for my coffee, the other half for my cocktail.

it was early the second night when we grabbed first drink, maybe around eight during the sunset. we weren't expecting to see anything, but were hopeful anyways. i got a beer for kit, and poured myself a drink.

kit looked at me in horror as i took a big sip off the top, and asked,

'where did you get that ice???'

we were in hysterics for a while after that. she thought i'd drained it from the soupy cooler, forgetting i'd saved coffee ice for drink ice. it was hilarious.

word to the wise: beer is not allowed in state parks.

i can't say that we found this out the hard way, but as we sat with our drinks, we offered dave and guy a beer, and when they declined, kit shouted to all of our helpful and generous neighbors 'we have beers if anyone wants one!'

guy came running over, saying something about he thought we were bullshitting him, not to announce it, because alcohol is strictly forbidden in state parks, and if they caught us, we'd be kicked out.

it put a little damper on things, but only for a minute. no one accepted, and we went back to oblivious drinks, waiting for a sky show.

we couldn't see anything until about nine. and by midnight, the coach had turned back into a pumpkin, and a hush fell over the field. everyone was calling it a night and going to bed.

there was talk of sucker holes, which are breaks in the clouds that let you catch a glimpse of something. but by the time you line up to get a better view, the clouds have moved. so you can never quite catch what it is that you're chasing.

after two days, they still didn't know our names, and dave kept saying, 'hey, girl...s... do you wanna see (fill in the blank)?' he kept delaying that s, and addressing each of us as girl. still cute to me.

but then the clouds were thick, and there weren't even sucker holes. guy and dave went to bed early, and we let them put the loaner scope away.

kit wanted to go to sleep before i did. i was holding out hope, and putting off saying goodbye, i guess. it was around one when we called it a night. and i had the beer that broke the diet.

i'd been behaving so well. i mean, who goes camping and doesn't have smores and buns and chips and all kinds of other things that are delicious. they even had star shaped iced cookies for sale that i would have killed to just smell at close range.

i was so good, but having a farewell beer was necessary to me.

i thought it would help me fall asleep, too.

so we talked about our plan for the morning, about how tired we were. about how there was really nothing to see at that point. and about our plans for the future, involving star parties and the park we were in, deep in the allegheny mountains. we talked about how lucky we were, and how we couldn't believe the things that lined up to bring us there for the party.

i can't even remember now how i found it. i can't remember how i found out about dark sky parks in general. i think i looked into stargazing in our city, and found something in the burbs that linked to the park where the party was being held. and then figured out that, without a telescope there wasn't much point, and that if we came to the party, that would be best.

and from there, found that there were two: one in june, one in september. and impatience was only half of the equation for me. the other half was that i wanted the chance to go to the first one, so i'd know if i wanted to go to the second one.

i am so incredibly glad that i did.

i still can't believe it, honestly.

i will plug into things near us, but because of the city, i cannot imagine that stargazing here could be any good at all, whatsoever.

our other neighbor, chris, came over to talk to us. kit had guessed accurately that he was a scientist like she is. he did neuro-research, but gave it up to have a family. he was in his forties.

we were sitting around, he was counseling her on her life path, where she is in science right now, where she can go. he was encouraging her. and something that weighs heavily on kit's mind is a question that i popped.

she always wonders what type of person she will marry, ultimately. but for now, what type of man would keep her interested. she's had her time with crushing on musicians, and wishes that scientist men weren't such dicks all the time, because she thinks that two scientists make one scientist too many.

so i asked him what his wife did for a living. she was in ethics at the same college he was in. so she most likely sits on review boards.

it was an interesting answer, and i didn't think to discuss it with kit after. but we both kindof nodded, like 'hmm... very interesting.'

so then we were joking around. all these lightning bugs were appearing that night. all three of us were smoking, and one came close to the cherry on my cigarette. keep in mind, it's pitch black. none of us can see each other. just little red lights going from mouth to resting place on elbow triangles planted on thighs.

chris was saying that it was probably trying to find its mate in my cigarette and said, 'that's going to end badly'.

to which kit said, 'feels like burning' in that cute high pitched kid voice.

to which i replied, 'you might wanna get that checked out'

it was another of those moments where it takes a few minutes to stop laughing. we were trying to be quiet, because it was late enough for most people to be in their tents, attempting to sleep.

in any case, he called it a night. and farewell beer came and went. we took our trip to the bathroom, which was a ways away from our tent, comparatively, but not far at all, really. maybe one city block?

kit and i climbed into the tent, defeated. i was thinking, as i have at many times in my past, that i just wanted to see one more shooting star. actually, i was being greedy because the night before had been so loaded with them, and wished for two.

but the clouds. i didn't see one.

so i set myself up for sleep. earplugs, eye mask, ipod. but i had these two lines, swimming in my head. i got up to get the red flashlight to write them, and spotted the cardstock printouts guy had given us of the messier objects and the c objects (can't remember what that stands for now).

i wanted mine on the messier card, because it's like a to do list for me. they're the easier things to find, after stars and constellations.

so i wrote like four lines, that is all i had room for, around the border.

and then used the other card for a note to kit, for her birthday.

by the end of eight sentences, kit was out like a light.

and then i switched off my flashlight, and got all my gear back in place.

but couldn't let it go.

there was too much swimming in my head to sleep. and i know that when i get that feeling, i have to act on it. because when i read what i wrote the morning after, i'm always glad. half the time i don't remember writing it. it comes back to that 'i am a vessel' thing. sometimes i don't even know whose thoughts i am writing. but then remember, yep. those are mine...

so i sat up, immediately having to pee. i took my ipod and journal with me. we'd packed up the car before sleep, which turned out to be a very very good idea. so i unloaded the car of the chair. my hoodie with cigs and lighters and all that. i forgot my glasses in the tent, and didn't want to wake kit up, so i just sat out without them.

i'm pretty blind. i could only see a couple stars through clouds. but i was writing anyway, so i wasn't looking up at all.

in hindsight, besides my brain, maybe it was the beer that kept me up. all those carbs in my system after over a week without them surely shocked my body.

in any case, i ran to the bathroom, afraid i'd get lost going alone at night. i always tried to turn down the wrong path walking back, and kit would correct me everytime. it wasn't complicated or hard, but i didn't get it right until that one time. i was really relieved when i got back to my car and my tent and realized that i'd not gotten lost.

and then i sat. and i wrote. until about four. two hours of writing. with sigur ros in my ears. it was exactly what i'd been craving. and just like food, i didn't realize it until i felt the satisfaction when i finished it.

i felt calm and peaceful inside. i felt the weight of my exhaustion. i was on a total of seven hours of sleep at that point. i'd almost been up for 24 hours, for the second day in a row. everything felt very intense.

i said goodbye to the sky. i said goodbye to the park. i said goodbye to the party. i said thank you. and i went to sleep.

i'm going to have to stop here for the night, tonight.

the drive back was another story in itself. and it's getting late. i still haven't recovered from the lack of sleep this weekend, and don't want to feel any worse for the wear tomorrow.

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