Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks are two of my favorite places on earth. I’ve spent many summers there, camping and hiking and visiting my daughter, who was a park ranger in Yellowstone for several summers, then a geologist in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Going to Yellowstone every summer was like going to church, meeting God everywhere you turned. Even though it’s one of the most visited national parks in the nation, once you leave the main road you truly are in a wild, untamed place.
Being there, to me at least, is like returning to sanity. Things make sense and the world is as it should be. When life back home becomes crazy with busyness and stress, I close my eyes and turn my thoughts to Yellowstone. Just knowing it’s there is enough.
Tibetans say that Mount Meru is the center of the universe; in my world, the center is Yellowstone.
We need the wild for renewal.
We need the wild to remind us who we are.
We need the wild to keep us from getting lost.
We need the wild to keep us humble.
We need the wild to remind us what is real.
We need the wild to take our breath away.
We need the wild to show us what we’re most afraid of.
We need the wild as a guide, showing us we don’t need anything more than we already have.
We need the wild to show us the way to stillness.
We need the wild to remind us that life goes on without us.
The sky calls to us. – Carl Sagan
I’ve been missing the stars this summer. The other day I was reading a children’s book about the history of science (The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way, by Joy Hakim), and was struck from the very first page by the thought of what the night skies must have looked like thousands of years ago, before there was electric light or air pollution. I can’t even begin to imagine the magnitude of what that must have looked like.
Those of us living in the city go night after night rarely thinking about the stars overhead. It’s only when we leave the city on a clear night that we suddenly realize how different the sky looks, and that it always looks that way, but stubbornly remains obscured to us.
I remember well my first sight of the Milky Way. I was eighteen and camping in the Everglades and wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I was amazed. Even though my family had traveled back and forth many times between Dallas and Oklahoma, I had never once seen the Milky Way. I was looking into the middle of our galaxy, and it took my breath away.
I’ve seen the Milky Way many times since then. One of the reasons I love traveling west on summer vacation is the chance to see the night sky. Even though our days are exhausting, either driving to get to our next campground or hiking through canyons and up mountains, I love nothing more than watching the stars for hours at night and pondering the mysteries of the universe.
One summer years ago, when the kids were younger, we drove to one of our favorite places, Arches National Park in Utah. Unfortunately, by the time we got there the campsite was full. The rangers suggested we drive over to BLM land just outside of Canyonlands NP and camp for free, then try back in the morning. Despite my initial reluctance, it was incredible. We hiked around and saw huge tracks in the sand and convinced ourselves there were cougars nearby (we later saw in a ranger station they were just coyote tracks). Later that night, we saw more stars than any of us had ever seen. Someone had the idea to look at the stars with the binoculars, which we did, but the sheer incomprehensibility of that many more stars was literally frightening, and we put the binoculars away.
What was it that scared us so much about seeing that many stars? I think it magnified our questions to the same percentage as the stars.
Another time we sat on the edge of Bryce Canyon on the 4th of July. We saw numerous falling stars that night, and all agreed it was better than fireworks in the city.
In Badlands NP in South Dakota, we hiked a small rise at the primitive campground one evening to look at the stars. With the Milky Way bright overhead, we could see lightning on the horizon in all four directions. Later that night, the four thunderstorms converged directly over our tent. The rain came down so hard it flattened the side of our tent, snapped one of the fiberglass poles in half, and left us drenched. The lightning was nonstop, and I very seriously thought we were all going to die. We laugh about it now, but I prayed that night.
Another trip, this time camping in Guadalupe NP in 1997: It was mid-March, Spring Break, and we had driven all day to get there. We pitched the tents and went to sleep as soon as the sun went down. As is so often the case when camping and the restroom is either a gazillion miles away or nonexistent, I woke up in the middle of the night and had to go. It was cold, and I hurriedly unzipped the sleeping bag, then the tent door. As I did so, I saw something strangely bright in the sky just above. I squinted as hard as I could, then fumbled around in the dark until I found my glasses. I couldn’t believe it–it looked like a comet! I woke up the entire family (and probably the entire campground) with my wondrous discovery. They weren’t as impressed as I was, but the next day I asked around and got mostly blank stares from the rangers. Apparently it was Hale-Bopp, and the word was just starting to get out about it’s existence. It was a beautiful double-tailed comet, and so bright I could see it from my front porch a mile from downtown Dallas. Night after night, month after month, it made its appearance, but very few people noticed it.
There is one winter constellation we can always see in the city, and that is Orion the Hunter. Even my fifth grade students were familiar with Orion. There is a fantastic website called Dakota Lapse that I love to visit. When I showed my students Randy Halverson’s motion controlled timelapse photos of Orion, they couldn’t grasp the fact that so many other stars were always in the sky, unseen to them because of city lights.
What is it about the stars that hold such mystery for us?
Science has always been a subject that’s fascinated me–especially astronomy and geology–but one that I struggled with, like math, as a student. Reading and writing were easy for me; science and math weren’t.
Most of my science classes in high school were taught by coaches, and we rarely did labs or anything hands-on. Both subjects were taught straight from textbooks, and no teacher stands out as making the learning fun or interesting. It wasn’t until college that I had a teacher who made algebra come alive. His passion for math made me want to solve algebra problems in my spare time, kind of like solving crossword puzzles. I wasn’t so lucky with science. I’m pretty much science illiterate, and through the years I’ve made it a goal to learn more about the sciences.
I loved Carl Sagan, whose beautiful style of writing and obvious humanity are still greatly missed since his death in 1996. We need more scientists and mathematicians who have the gift of imparting abstract ideas with such clarity and poetry. One summer I decided to watch the entire Cosmos series. I made it to the episode where he lays all the chemical elements on a table and says something to the effect of, Everything in our universe is made from these elements. I stopped, rewound, and watched it again. And again. And again. That’s as far as I got in the series. For some reason, it was so simple and so complex all at the same time. It was the precursor to looking at the stars in the binoculars.
Maybe I’ll give Cosmos another try one day. As a matter of fact, I’ve already got it queued up on Hulu. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading and learning and wondering–and I’ll keep leaving the city every chance I get to gaze up at the stars at night and ponder the mysteries of the universe.
*** My friend Jon posted this amazing video on Facebook this morning, which goes right along with my post:
***The significance of Orion continues. I saw this news article yesterday: Oxygen Molecules Detected in Orion Constellation
***And the BEST news of all: Cosmos gets a sequel
It’s week three of summer vacation. In years past, when the kids were younger, we would be well on our way on our annual summer road trip. Since we had family in Montana, most of our trips were out west to Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, and some trips we managed to squeeze in South Dakota, Utah, and the Four Corners area as well. Each summer our entire family became national park junkies, so for me, summer vacation still means road trip.
There’s something about a road trip that speaks to most Americans, especially a road trip out west. It’s part of our national mythology. Nothing stands as a symbol of American independence and hardiness more than the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail. I can’t imagine the difficulties and hardships of traveling such a distance–especially for women, many of whom were pregnant or gave birth during the trip–but what a grand adventure it must have been! Whenever we’ve crossed the Trail in Wyoming, through landscape that is bare yet breathtakingly beautiful, I’m struck by the fact that very little has changed. Other than the thin lonely ribbon of highway that snakes past Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and South Pass, the land looks much the same as it must have over a hundred and fifty years ago. When I’m feeling sorry for myself, I think of those pioneers optimistically marching across a harsh land towards a new, uncertain life.
My favorite national park may be Yellowstone. Yellowstone is a place that reminds me that nature doesn’t need us. Despite the hordes of tourists that clog the park in the summer, once you get off the road and hike into the interior you realize how petty and small your life is compared to the life all around you. When I’m there, I’m reminded how much we need wild places, places where grizzlies and eagles and bison roam free, to remind ourselves that we truly are a part of nature and the cycles of life and death. We’re not separate from nature, and wild places act as a balance to our man-made city wilderness. There’s also something exciting about knowing you’re walking on top of a massive active volcano that scientists say will–not if–explode again one day. When I’m feeling disappointed in mankind and yearn to leave the city, I think of Yellowstone.
If there is such a thing as sacred spaces, then southern Utah is that place for me. Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Natural Bridges National Monument are where I truly feel the presence of something holy and sublime. The emptiness and deep silences seem eternal there, and being confronted with the deep mystery of the universe at night when the sky lights up with more stars than you’ve ever seen before is beyond words. Canyonlands is a place to find yourself, a place to question all that you value and what you want your life to be. When I’m feeling lost and stressed out by the demands of work and relationships, I think of southern Utah.
If I had my way, I’d spend the rest of my life doing nothing more than traveling from one national park to another. In the meantime, there’s always summer vacation.