Tagged: travel

The Wildness Without

Why are wild places so vital to our existence?

I’ve pondered this question since my first trip years ago to Yellowstone National Park, and wrote a photographic post about the subject last year. Most people may not think of a national park as being “wild,” but I assure you, once you step off the main road or the shorter, more visited hiking trails and enter the back country, you are indeed in a wild place. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to experience it directly from the main road, such as when coming across a pack of wolves circling a group of elk cows and their calves, like I did one summer, or when you spot a grizzly bear at dusk, just off the road, pawing grubs at the base of a decomposing tree trunk.

Man’s presence is not needed for the wild to flourish, but I’m convinced we need wild places in order to flourish as human beings. We’re not separate from nature, we’re just another part of it. Wild places strip us of our modern contrivances and remind us how simple and present life really is.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

Off the Beaten Path wrote about wild places recently and put into words exactly how I feel. She writes about viewing a grizzly sow and her cub:

For the first time I truly understood what a privilege it is to be able to visit a wild place; a place that provides a space for animals as wild as grizzly bears to live. That just knowing that these places are there adds value to our lives, even if we don’t go there often. This was an epiphany; and silly as it sounds, I realized that I hadn’t really understood why wild spaces are so important until that moment.

When I was still teaching fifth grade, I used to come back from our summer road trips to Montana and Wyoming feeling sad that most of my students had never experienced a wild place, and probably never would. I felt certain that if only I could pack them all into a bus bound for Yellowstone, get them on the trails, and let them spend time in the wild, it would change their lives. Children need to see that the earth is a living thing, that there are wild places with rules all their own, and that everything they think is important in life really isn’t.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

Once in Yellowstone we mistakenly took a left instead of a right and wound up taking an unplanned all day hike up Sepulcher Mountain. For almost an entire day we never saw another human. The weather was somewhat stormy, and I remembered all the warnings I had ever read about hiking in the mountains during lightning. There is something life-altering about spending an entire day in nature, having to be alert and attentive to the possibility of death from weather or wild animal, and yet feeling so completely alive because of it.

We sat at the top and viewed the mountains around us. I had a profound feeling that I was at the center of the world, and that it didn’t matter what happened to the rest of the world, Yellowstone and the wilderness would always be there. It didn’t need us. It didn’t need me. Life would always continue, with or without man.

There was still snow at the top, and because we were lightly dressed we ran down the side of the mountain in our hiking boots. It felt like we were flying. Missing that turn on the road turned out to be one of the best days of my life.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

I think back often on that day climbing Sepulcher Mountain. I can imagine the grizzly bears, the bison, and the wolves going on with their lives, oblivious to anything but survival. Life is harsh in the wild, but perhaps our own modern lives are just as harsh, if not more so, than anything we can imagine in the wild.

Perhaps the need to connect with wildness is why I love trail running. When I’m running on a trail in a beautiful location, even if it’s only half an hour’s drive outside the city, I’m always cognizant of the possibility of danger. I don’t want to get chased down by a bobcat or trip over a rattlesnake, but running through a forest or desert canyon gives me a sense of freedom and being alive like nothing else does.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

So find someplace wild to visit. Spend time in the Needles in Canyonlands, or hike into the wilds of Alaska. Get out of the car. Walk. Make yourself a part of the natural world. Remind yourself that the entire world is your home. See what lessons wild places have to teach you.

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What Makes a Place Feel Like Home

They say home is where the heart is, and I believe it. I’ve written before about how being in Wyoming feels like home, even though I’ve never lived there. What is it about certain places that instantaneously feels like home?

I admit that home doesn’t have to be a place. People can also feel like home, and make the unknown places you visit better if that person is with you. But for me, home is a place, where things are open and spacious, inspire awe, and make me joyful to be alive.

On the road to Moab, Utah

On the road to Moab, Utah

For me, a place feels like home when I can be myself, when I don’t have to hide who I am or pretend to be someone I’m not. I can live in jeans and t-shirts, forgo almost all makeup, and not worry about having the latest hairstyle or making enough money. I’ve lived most of my life in Dallas and have spent most of that time trying to get away. Even though my closest friends and family are here, as are years of memories, it’s not where I belong.

The first time we drove out West to visit my then-husband’s family, I felt like I relaxed for the first time in my life, like being surprised to realize you’ve been holding your breath and tightening your shoulders. All that melted away when I saw the beautiful, sweeping grandeur of the West.

Utah

South of Moab, Utah

At first I thought it was just the landscape that made it feel like home, like finally being somewhere I could explore the outdoors and hike and run in beauty. But it was more than that. I lived in Switzerland for seven years in my early twenties, and despite its breathtaking scenery, I never felt comfortable there. I felt like an outsider, and it was a feeling that never left. Switzerland couldn’t have been more different from Texas in every way imaginable, and I was the stranger next door peeking in.

Flaming Gorge

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area

There is something about being in the West that speaks to my soul. I can understand traveling across the country on foot, next to a wagon, following a trail that leads to an unseen place to start a new life. I can understand taking that risk, especially if it brought me to a place where life was what I could make it, not what someone else told me it should be.

Oregon Trail, Wyoming

The Oregon Trail crosses through this land towards South Pass, Wyoming

I don’t like crowds, and generally avoid large cities when I travel. I especially take to emptiness and lonely landscapes. I like having space. Most people find the places I love to be boring, a whole lot of nothing. Not me. I imagine lying in the grass, watching the clouds slide by, or viewing the heavens on a star-filled night.

I used to do a lot of that when I was a child. Being outdoors, with no particular purpose, may be my best childhood memory and the thing I miss most about being a child. Just being. Outdoors. Just enjoying.

Moab, Utah

South of Moab, Utah

Some places feel like more than home, they feel sacred. Utah is that place for me. I don’t really believe in energy vortexes and all that stuff, but there is a certain feel about all that dry, barren, rockiness that seems electric. It’s almost an unnameable mystery that makes me want to be there. I think of walking there, exploring, trail running, or meditating, of vision quests and being creative, living in a trailer, rejecting modern society, and making things with my hands.

Utah brings out my inner hippie.

Wilson Arch

Wilson Arch

Home feels like a place where you don’t care what others think of you, because you know most of the people around you either think the same, or you know they will be accepting of your differences. You speak the same language, so to speak. It doesn’t matter your political views, your stance on religion, or what kind of car you drive. When you’re outdoors, you’re a member of the same tribe.

La Sal Mountains

La Sal Mountains, just south of Moab, Utah

Remember that old John Denver song, Rocky Mountain High, about “coming home, to a place he’d never been before?” It happens, and when it does, even if you can’t always be home, you know you can live anywhere because home is never far from your heart and mind.

I hope you find your home.

Moab, Utah

What do you consider “home?” Is it a place, or the people you love? Is it where you grew up, where you now live, or someplace else?

Palo Duro, the Grand Canyon of Texas

West Texas is flat. Really flat. And treeless. It’s easy to imagine thousands of buffalo roaming the plain, or tornadoes barreling across the horizon. Amidst all this flat emptiness, it’s tough to believe there’s a canyon anywhere close by.

West Texas Windmill

But there is a canyon, and it’s the second largest canyon in the country.

Palo Duro Canyon

This past weekend some friends and I camped in Palo Duro Canyon in preparation for our trail race there in October.

Camping in Palo Duro Canyon

Jay loved camping in his new tent. Because of it’s McMansion dimensions compared to the other two tents, it was quickly dubbed “The McTent.”

New Tent

Some places in the country have snow drifts. In West Texas, we have mud. Flash flood warning signs are everywhere in the park. It’s obvious Palo Duro had a significant rain event in the canyon sometime before we got there.

Palo Duro Water Crossing

But it wasn’t as significant as the rain and flooding they had there in 1978.

1978 Flood Sign in Palo Duro Canyon

Though not deadly, spiders as big as your hand are nevertheless scary. There are tarantulas in the park. Supposedly they jump.

Tarantula in Palo Duro Canyon

Looking for evidence of other animals in the canyon is easy in the soft sand. Other than these raccoon tracks, we saw other evidence of deer, hogs, coyotes, and lizards.

Animal Tracks in Palo Duro Canyon

It was extremely hot during the day in the canyon. 114 degrees was the highest we saw. We had been hoping to have cooler temps, but at least it was cool in the mornings and evenings.

Thermometer in Palo Duro Canyon

Even Shasta felt the heat.

Hot Dog in Palo Duro Canyon

To avoid the intense sun, we stayed under our shade shelter and played Uno, Monopoly, read, snacked, and played with the dogs.

Playing Uno in Palo Duro Canyon

Hari is like the overindulgent grandparent when it comes to Shasta.

Hari and Shasta

Kurt braved the elements and went for a ride.

Cycling in Palo Duro Canyon

One morning we got up before the sun and went for an eleven mile trail run on the Givens, Spicer & Lowry Running Trail. It was the best trail run I’ve ever been on. It was exhilarating to run through such amazing scenery.

Early Morning Trail Run in Palo Duro

Our trail took us to the Lighthouse formation, which is an iconic Texas landmark.

Lighthouse Formation in Palo Duro Canyon

Hari and I took a break at the top of the Lighthouse. Kurt took photos.

On Top of the Lighthouse Formation in Palo Duro Canyon

The trail winds through the canyon. We had it to ourselves for hours.

Lighthouse Trail in Palo Duro Canyon

We took the Little Fox Canyon Trail loop for a few extra miles. It was starting to get warm, but it was nothing like the humidity we’re used to running in.

Little Fox Canyon Trail in Palo Duro Canyon

Tired, dusty, trail legs after a run are never pretty. Even Jay was impressed enough to take a photo.

Dusty trail legs in Palo Duro Canyon

Our last morning, Kurt and I got up once again before the sun and took a short 3.5 mile hike on the Rojo Grande and Juniper Trails. I love the desert light in the early mornings.

Juniper Trail in Palo Duro Canyon

West Texas is a dangerous place. On the way back to Dallas, even stopping at a rest area (which also doubles as a tornado shelter) can be treacherous.

Rattlesnake Rest Stop in West Texas

It was a great trip. From the coyotes howling in the middle of the night, to the full moon rising over the ridge, to the turquoise blue collared lizard I thought was a bird, and the Milky Way and Big Dipper stretching across the night sky, Palo Duro Canyon is beautiful. And of course, everything is more fun with good friends. I can’t wait to go back in October for the trail race.

Lighthouse trail run photos courtesy of Kurt Cimino.

Beautiful Tetons

During our week of camping in the Tetons, followed by my daughter’s wedding, we were audience to the continually changing beauty of the Tetons. I wanted to post a few photos of the Tetons, to show how different they looked at various times of day, but rather than just “a few,” decided to post all of the best photos.

MORNING:

After unzipping the tent each morning, the Tetons were always my first sight. It became a game each morning to discover how the mountains would look that first hour of the day.

Foggy Tetons

Our first morning’s view, before the fog had lifted in the valley

Teton view from the campsite

This was the view from our campsite.

Teton Dogs

Tetons as backdrop to my dogs, Shasta and Nevada

Tetons with Popcorn Clouds

The clouds were different every day we were there

NOON:

The afternoons were very warm, and the sunshine at altitude was intense. Everyone got sunburned the first day within the first hour. Each afternoon seemed to bring dramatic weather, with winds and dark clouds, though many times the rain never hit the ground.

Tetons after the rain

Our first view, after a huge downpour

Teton Rainshower

It wasn’t unusual to see rain and sunshine at the same time

Tetons and low clouds

After a hard rain storm

Tetons with rays of sunshine

Rays of sunshine beaming down from the clouds. It never stayed cloudy for long.

Tetons and cloud shadows

I love the way the cloud shadows danced across the mountains.

Teton Wedding

Tetons as backdrop to my daughter’s wedding

Tetons from the south

Evening Tetons on the south side of town, towards the ski resort

and NIGHT:

The evenings were simply gorgeous. Each evening was different from the one before, depending on the clouds and colors. Our first night there, the Milky Way arced across the sky like a white rainbow.

Teton Sunset

Our first sunset

Teton colors at sunset

The photo doesn’t do justice to the incredible colors that night

Tetons in early evening

Early evening

Evening Tetons with wispy clouds

The wispy clouds against the indigo sky were beautiful

Nighttime Tetons

Time for the stars to take over

Every Good Deed Deserves A Bottle Of Champagne

“NICE JACKET!” I was bent over my travel bag in the Portland Airport, putting away my raincoat from the train ride, and realized the loud voice was talking to me.

I looked at my sleeve to see what I was wearing. My Boston Marathon jacket. The one I rarely wear because I don’t like to draw attention to myself.

An older woman and her husband stood just behind me. I noticed he was wearing the black version with green stripes. “I like yours better,” I told him.

“Really?” she said. “I love that blue color. What year did you run Boston? Actually, that’s my jacket. He wears it all the time, though.”

She was probably ten years older than me and didn’t seem like a runner, especially one who had run Boston. She asked me what other races I had run, which one was my favorite, how fast I was, how many miles I logged each week, on and on and on. She was like an avalanche of questions and words, and I couldn’t catch my breath.

She went on to say she hardly ran, she was slow, she wanted to run more, and did I live in Portland? I managed to tell her I had just run the Eugene half marathon and was flying home to Dallas.

“Oh! SO ARE WE!” Her husband grinned and remained silent. He hadn’t said a word the entire time.

I vowed not to sit next to them on the plane.

I didn’t see them again until we boarded. We flew Southwest Airlines, and I was in the last group to board. I grabbed a middle seat fairly close to the front of the plane, next to an elderly woman who looked confused when I asked if I could sit in the empty seat next to her. She made a feeble attempt to get up, decided against it, and gruffly said, “Slide across.”

I smiled at the talking woman and her husband as they passed on their way to the back of the plane.

I wasn’t being rude; I just wanted to read my Kindle and maybe sleep a little on the plane. I needed some time to think about the past week, the race in Eugene, and the time spent with my daughter. I wouldn’t see her again until her wedding in July.

There was a brief layover in Kansas City, and before we landed an announcement was made asking “the couple celebrating their thirty-seventh wedding anniversary” to please see one of the flight attendants before they left.

Thirty-seven years of marriage? Impressive.

When the plane landed, a flight attendant carried back a bottle of champagne to the couple celebrating their anniversary. Most of the people disembarked, and the passengers continuing on to Dallas moved up to the front of the plane. I slid over to the window seat and looked forward to stretching my legs and using the restroom before the plane reloaded.

The talking woman and her husband moved up and sat across the aisle from me. They were holding a bottle of champagne. They were the anniversary couple.

(source)

The elderly woman sitting next to me went to use the restroom. The talking woman and her husband asked if I would watch their things while they went to use the restroom as well. I said, sure, even though I needed to go myself. Surely there would be enough time before the next group of passengers boarded the plane.

I kept looking back at the restroom. Unfortunately for me it was a very quick turnover, and the first passengers made their way onto the plane before they returned.

The plane began filling up and the three travelers still weren’t back from the restroom. Person after person tried to sit in the aisle seat next to me, until I finally put the elderly woman’s travel bag in the seat. Over and over people asked who was sitting in the seats across the aisle. Again and again I had to explain that the seats were taken, the occupants were in the restroom.

It was stressful. I repeatedly got an irritated scowl when I told someone the seats were already taken. People looked at me as if I wasn’t telling the truth, as if I was somehow cheating or breaking the rules. The man behind me laughed and said, “You’ve got a tough job!” How did I get this job anyway???

Finally, the plane was full, and the three passengers came back to claim their seats, oblivious to the stir their empty seats caused. The woman next to me asked why her bag was in her seat, and I patiently explained that I put it there because people kept trying to sit in her seat. She smirked but didn’t thank me.

The talking woman and  her husband settled in and immediately started up a conversation with the young businessman next to them. He had earlier asked me who was sitting in their seats, and frowned when I told him they were taken, as if it was my fault his business partner couldn’t sit next to him.

I never made it to the restroom during the flight. I was too worn out from saving the three seats to squeeze past the two pairs of legs next to me. I was ready to be home.

Just before we landed I saw the young businessman looking at the label on the bottle of champagne, discussing it with the talking woman and her husband. I watched them from my seat, thinking what a nice thing it was that the flight attendants had given them a gift for their anniversary.

And then, incredulously, I watched as the young businessman stood up and walked off the plane with the bottle of champagne still in hand.

I hadn’t expected or wanted that bottle of champagne until it was given away. The young businessman had done nothing other than sit next to the talking woman and her husband–and he walked away with an unearned prize.

Which is exactly why I didn’t deserve the bottle of champagne.

Instant karma. If I couldn’t do a good deed without the expectation of getting something out of it, especially from someone I found irritating and a bit of a nuisance, then I certainly didn’t deserve to be rewarded.

Even if the reward was an expensive bottle of champagne.

(source)

Punch Bowl Falls Hike in the Columbia River Gorge

My last day in Oregon my daughter and I spent an afternoon hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. We stopped off at Multnomah Falls and then did an easy four mile round-trip hike to Punchbowl Falls. Usually I would choose a longer, more challenging hike, but I was still sore from Sunday’s half marathon in Eugene and needed something tame.

After two days of rain and temperatures cold enough to keep me curled up on the sofa under a down blanket, the day of our hike was dry and somewhat sunny. I was amazed you could leave your house in Portland, hit the freeway, and be on a secluded forest trail within thirty minutes.

The freeway runs right along the Columbia River–the same river that took Lewis and Clark to their final destination, the Pacific Ocean. Even though we were on a major highway the scenery was lush and green, and there were numerous waterfalls cascading off the sides of the gorge. I think we must have seen close to twenty waterfalls the entire day.

We made a quick stop at Multnomah Falls. Lovely.

Multnomah Falls

At the base of the falls

Multnomah

After that, it was a very short drive to the Punchbowl Falls trail head. I was surprised that you have to pay to park, but I suppose the trail can get crowded on the weekends being so close to a major city like Portland. On a Wednesday afternoon, we only saw three other people on the trail.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many different shades of green in one space. I loved the moss growing on the trees.

Moss covered trees on the trail

I have a potted fern on my front porch. It’s always shriveled and dried up. It doesn’t like living in Texas. Now I know why.  They grow wild here in Oregon.

Ferns

The trail parallels Eagle Creek the entire way.

Eagle Creek

We saw several of these guys on the path. The forest was so moist and mossy, it must be paradise for a slug.

Huge slug–Yuck!

I’m always amazed at how tall the trees are in Oregon. I can only imagine how tall the old growth forest was before the settlers arrived.

Beautiful trees

I was glad I wore my raincoat when the trail took us through a small waterfall.

Spring runoff

Behind the waterfall

There were many varieties of wildflowers, including the delicate Columbine, which tends to grow on the sides of wet cliffs and along the banks of shady rivers, lakes, and streams.

Columbine and my lovely daughter

Wildflowers on the trail

A small spur off the side of the trail leads to Metlako Falls. Apparently it’s been a very rainy spring, even for Oregon, and the waterfalls are extra spectacular this year.

Metlako Falls

After an easy two mile hike, which included some scrambling over a small stream, we reached Punchbowl Falls. I’m sure it’s named as such due to the round basin the waterfall spills into. I know people must jump off the cliffs into the pool because there was a sign warning us not to.

Punchbowl Falls

After the hike, we drove on part of the old highway along the Columbia River to find Bridal Veil Falls. For some strange reason we found the bridge named after the waterfall, but not the waterfall itself.

My specialty is missing what’s right in front of my face, and apparently I’ve passed the trait on to my daughter.

We decided to console ourselves with post hike beers at McMenamin’s Edgefield. It was a great way to celebrate a fantastic hike and my last day in Oregon with my truly wonderful daughter. Though I hate that she lives so far away, she’s chosen a great place for me to visit!

Portland, Oregon: A City I Could Love

After running the Eugene Half Marathon, I spent a few days visiting my daughter and her fiance in Portland. Despite the cold, rainy weather, Portland is a city I could definitely learn to love.

I did almost no sightseeing in the city itself, mainly because I had just run a half marathon and my legs were a little trashed. And did I mention it was cold and rainy? We’re talking 40’s and 50’s, which is like winter for this Texan.

While in Portland, we had dinner one night at a fantastic Thai restaurant called PaaDee on Burnside. It was, hands down, the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten. I loved it so much I even took my friend Hari there for lunch the very next day before he flew back home to Dallas. We even took pictures of our food–it was that good.

The only time in my life I’ve ever photographed my food in a restaurant.

Hari blissfully eating in all his Eugene paraphernalia.

One afternoon my daughter and I walked (I hobbled) up to Mt Tabor. I can’t believe there are such beautiful places in a city the size of Portland.

View of downtown Portland from Mt Tabor

They don’t call me a tree hugger for nothing.

Walking path and trees at Mt Tabor

One thing I love about Oregon is the incredibly tall trees. They make our Texas trees look like bushes.

Right in the middle of the city, next to parking lots, are these huge trees. I almost got rear ended looking at the trees.

The tree in a parking lot that nearly caused an accident when I saw it.

11 random observations about Portland:

  1. It seems to be a young city. Maybe it’s because I spent most of my time with my daughter and her friends, but everyone seemed to be young.
  2. The houses are fantastic. Historic, full of character, charming. These are houses I could live in.
  3. It seems to be trendy to dress like a Victorian. We saw a few guys dressed in bowler hats, bow ties, and old fashioned pants. Interesting. I expected to see a lot of granola types, but this I didn’t expect.
  4. The homeless people have cell phones. I saw quite a few walking around town talking and texting on their phones. And there are a lot of homeless people in Portland.
  5. The bridges are scary to drive across. I’m not afraid of heights, but driving across the Willamette River on the freeway bridge made me feel like the girl in Clueless who accidentally gets on the freeway.
  6. You see a lot of old, beat up cars in Portland. You rarely see old cars in Dallas. People there pride themselves on their new, expensive, immaculately clean cars. I liked seeing the old cars still out there, being put to use.
  7. Recycling is serious business, and the city even picks up compostable items.
  8. People drive more courteously than they do in Dallas. I never had anyone tailgate, or cut me off, or drive aggressively.
  9. Cars and bikes share the roads. The cyclists actually stop at red lights and stop signs. They even wait until the light turns green. Road signs and signals seem to be optional in Dallas (and that goes for cars, as well).
  10. Everyone expects changing weather and brief rain showers. They dress in layers and carry umbrellas. But they still talk about the weather all the time.
  11. I could work for Nike. The Nike world headquarters in Beaverton is an awesome space. The buildings are surrounded by trees and various running paths, trails, and tracks. Everyone going into the building was dressed very casually in jeans, t-shirts, and running shoes–Nikes, of course.

I loved visiting Portland, and could definitely see myself living there one day. Even with all the chilly, rainy days, I suspect I would eventually adjust and learn to layer up. When the temperatures start hitting the 100’s down here in Texas in a few weeks, I’m going to remember there are cooler, more habitable places in America–like Portland.

Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons: The Need for Wildness

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.

Tetons

We need the wild to remind us who we are.

Sepulcher Moutain, Yellowstone

We need the wild to keep us from getting lost.

Bison Cows and Calves

We need the wild to keep us humble.

Bison Swimming Across the Yellowstone River

We need the wild to remind us what is real.

Dissipating Rain in Yellowstone

We need the wild to take our breath away.

Yellowstone Lake

We need the wild to show us what we’re most afraid of.

Grizzly Bear

We need the wild as a guide, showing us we don’t need anything more than we already have.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

We need the wild to show us the way to stillness.

Alkaline Ridge, Wyoming

We need the wild to remind us that life goes on without us.

Fox

Stars, Desert Travels, and My Science Illiteracy

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.

My son on the edge of Canyonlands NP

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.

My daughter at Bryce Canyon NP

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.

Our tent after the storm. The kids are still asleep inside.

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

The World Stopped for the Buffalo – a poem

We climbed to the top and the world stopped

The day the buffalo crossed the Yellowstone River.

We watched in wonder

And our lives made sense,

Knowing the animals didn’t need us.

We stood at the center of the caldera

While everything swirled around us.

We were dizzy from the beauty of it all.

The tree spread its arms to shelter us from the storm

And we ran breathless down the mountain,

Down the road, to the double rainbow in West Texas.

You were the boulder I stood on at the edge of the canyon,

The fire you made with the wet wood,

The trail that led we knew not where,

And the grizzly who came to us from the trees.

You could leave now

And nothing would change.

All the things we’ve said and seen and heard

Could neither be forgotten nor erased.

They are the threads that will keep me safe

No matter what detours we take.

I will knit those strands together and make a life

Of everything we’ve done.

7/31/08