As a kid, I didn’t really have an opportunity to experience a “real” dark sky. I saw pictures of what they were supposed to look like, but I grew up in the suburbs of southeast Michigan where street lamps, porch lights and strip mall signs all did their part to cloak the brilliance of the stars. It didn’t occur to me for many years why there was a difference between what I saw in books and what I saw looking up in the sky.
When I say “real” dark skies I’m talking the kind of night sky where stars shine so brightly that they can literally light up a country road as you walk along on a cloudless, moonless night. When I was a kid, we also didn’t have internet access in the palm of our hand, so I gleaned my interstellar inspiration for the night sky from books, movies and magazines. i.e. Star Wars and National Geographic. However as good as they were, when I began to grow older and more appreciative of the night sky, these resources only left me wanting to see the real thing with my own two eyes.
Over the last year, Kristin and I have been traveling around the country in our truck and mobile abode/business headquarters. During this time we’ve had the opportunity to truly experience what nature intended us to see when we look up at the night sky. Once we left the light pollution behind and made our way into the few remaining places in our country that we humans haven’t affected, it became very clear to us just what we’ve been missing out on all these years.
The only way I can really describe a true dark sky, without any light pollution interfering, would be one word: ‘ALIVE’. The night sky simply speaking is ALIVE!! A REAL dark sky actually isn’t dark at all. It is brilliantly lit up with an uncountable number of twinkling, flashing, and shining stars. Even if I started counting at sundown, I would literally run out of time to count all the stars visible to us before the sunrise blocked them all out again. That’s how many we can see up there.
Among other things illuminating the night sky are a multitude of satellites darting around like the world’s most complex game of 1980’s Pong. There are thousands of satellites crisscrossing above us. And there is almost a near constant barrage of space debris and meteors shooting across the sky, like mighty roman candles from a distant giant’s unseen, outstretched arm.
After witnessing our first dark sky, we learned that if you wish upon a shooting star, you better have a lengthy wish list…we saw so many we ran clean out of wishes that night. There are also constellations, constellations and more constellations on display, everywhere you look. And the almighty North Star that was always the icon I found in the sky as a kid actually becomes lost in a pool of brightly shining clones in a real dark sky.
As we continue to gaze up, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter and Venus (and other planets, depending on the time of year) all battle it out for our upward gazing attention. Looking like slower versions of satellites, we’ve watched high altitude airplanes soaring at the fringes of the earth and occasionally we’ve seen and heard late night military aircraft roaring overhead. Even the space station has waved hi to us as it glides many miles up across the sky.
Last but not least the Milky Way greets us. It is our favorite illuminated swath of lights from some ancient otherworldly paint explosion gone awry. Milky Way! Oh, how you’ve allowed us to get lost in wonder for hours at a time. The books, magazines and movies that sparked my night sky wonder are nothing in comparison to the real Milky Way, seen with my own two eyes.
It’s a liberating feeling to take in the grandeur of a living dark sky. Out here, time seems to stop under the ever moving night. And whatever challenges the day may have brought begin to fade away as the dancing lights take over my thoughts. I’m left with only one problem. Refilling my wish list as fast as I can as the plethora of shooting stars carry my good fortunes away to the land of interstellar wish granting. A great problem to face in my opinion.
There are many places around the country we have had the good fortune of experiencing true dark skies. And here are our top ten favorite places for admiring nocturnal works of art:
Southern New Mexico
Southwest Texas (Big Bend)
The Oregon Coast
Northern California (in the redwoods)
North & South Dakota
These aren’t the only places you can view a real dark sky, but if you visit any of these locales on a clear night, I know you won’t be disappointed. It goes without saying but if you’re anywhere within fifty miles of a decent sized city or an area producing light pollution, the affect just won’t be the same. Same goes if there’s a full moon, or near full moon.
A MOSTLY dark sky is NOT the same thing as a REAL dark sky. For a real dark sky there are no shortcuts, you just have to travel to some of the isolated places still left in our expansive country.
In a shrinking countryside, that is being encroached upon daily by an ever increasing number of shopping malls, subdivisions, airports and headlights, we highly recommend getting out and experiencing a living dark sky firsthand.
I say this with an irony as thick as the stars in the Milky Way, but it seems that in order to see the light, we must first turn it off.
Cheers to the beauty of the night,