The Joy of Looking Up

But for my money, the best view on Earth – anywhere on Earth – is straight up. It’s easy to forget because the whole scene is often reduced to glittering lights sprinkled across a midnight blue dome. But to glance up at the stars is not so much to look at the night sky as it is to peer out into it. There is a vast depth to the scene which is often missed but which is far grander than even the grandest earthly vista.

On a clear day, you can see 130 miles from the top of Mt Washington in New Hampshire. The view from Everest can exceed two-hundred. The current record for line of sight stands at 334 miles, taken from a place in the Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan.

But look up on any night from anywhere and the very closest twinkling light is somewhat further still. So far, in fact, that the distance is not measured in feet or miles but in time – the time it takes the fastest known thing to traverse the space. A lightyear works out to about six trillion miles and Alpha Centauri, the closest star visible in the night sky, is a little over four light years away.

It’s little use talking about the distance, for it is so far as to be virtually ungraspable in any practical way. You could try though. Imagine, if you will, being able to climb to the roof of your apartment building in New York, and looking out over the edge, you were able to see, far off and impossibly small, the faintest shimmer of Paris’ lights in the distance. That would be a view of about four-thousand miles. Alpha Centauri is roughly six-billion times further on.

It is, in short, a long long way.

And that is just the closest one. Polaris, the North Star, is nearly a hundred times further still. Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt, are each well over twelve-hundred lightyears away. If you’re working out the mileage on your calculator, you may well find that it’s more zeros than the device can comfortably display, but the distance is around seven quadrillion miles.

To look up into the night sky, even with the naked eye, is to look out across the most magnificent sweeping vista that mankind has ever known.

And we have always known it. Even today, as the blinding speed of development seems to have approached that of light itself, the stars above us have remained largely unchanged for the last four-thousand years.

These are the stars that Caesar saw. Socrates and Homer too. When they pushed the very last piece into place at Stonehenge, they would have toasted the occasion beneath a sky very much like the one you’ll see tonight.

In a world of division — left, right, black, white, Abraham, Jesus, or Mohammed — it is at least some comfort to know that when all three pondered the meaning of a life well-lived, they did so beneath the very same stars the shine now.

It was Emerson who said that if the stars came out just one night in a thousand years, “all mankind would believe and adore and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown.

Instead, they are ours every night.

Except in the cities, of course, where the glare of a million headlights and streetlights and billboards has chased all but the brightest celestial bodies from the sky, and the only constellations to be found are the ones made of lit-up office windows. There a person can go a whole lifetime and never know what the night sky is supposed to look like.

I remember the first time I saw it. I had flown to Colorado and caught a ride to a dusty camp on the outskirts of a town called Cañon City. Back then, there were only two reasons to go to Cañon City – either you were going whitewater rafting, or you were going to jail. In a town of less than twenty-thousand, there were thirteen penitentiaries. It was even home to the Museum of Colorado Prisons, lest the people’s dedication to the science of confinement be called into question.

I had cast my lot with the water, having signed up to learn to guide on the nearby Arkansaas River. It was my first time camping in the wide open spaces of the American west.

There are many places in this country that claim to be home to fickle forecasts, and I’ve had locals from Seattle to San Antonio tell me “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a few minutes.” But only there, on the high-plains desert of one of the world’s great mountain chains, have I found the expression to be true.

Sun and heat, then rain, then snow, then heat again, all in the same afternoon. We would watch the weather coming over the distant back range, swept along by the relentless wind which pressed my tent flat to the ground and sent many others cartwheeling along the desert floor.

In the evenings, the darkness seemed to suck the warmth from every corner of the world and that first night, even wrapped in my sleeping bag, I was frozen through.

I climbed from my bag to try and stomp some heat back into my limbs and stepping from my tent I was met with a view so spectacular as to make me forget everything else. An onyx black sky reaching from horizon to horizon, filled from edge to edge with the most magnificent display of glittering lights. They seemed to reach down from the heavens, at once close enough to touch and yet grand beyond belief, and snaking a course through the middle of it all, the great white river of the Milky Way.

I had not known the stars could ever shine that bright.

Later, when we’d seen the river take its first life of that deadly summer, I remember looking up at those stars and feeling small and safe. Safe in the feeling of being small. The stars have long been a reminder of our place in the grand scheme of things. Seems a shame to trade that for the billboards.

No matter. A sense of place is among the first things to return when you decide to crane your neck and look upward. Not just a sense for your place in the cosmos, but more literally a sense of where you are.

It’s a novel thing the first time you get the lay of the land by looking at the sky. The world no longer feels quite so big. To glance at the stars and say for certain that this way is west or that it is about 2AM is enough to make you feel master of the universe. It’s as though the entire hemisphere, at a stroke, has become your neighborhood, and while you may not know exactly what lies over the next hill, you feel certain that you could find your way out of the desert given enough time and a backpack full of snacks.

Of course, one need not go to the desert to see the night sky through new eyes. For it is not really the sky that changes, but the eyes themselves, the way of looking. All that is required is curiosity. To look once more with the eyes of your younger self, and to wonder about what it is you’re really seeing – that is all that’s needed.

I like the winters for this. I’ve heard it said before that you can either curse the blustery snows of winter or you can decide to learn to ski. I’d say the same goes for winter’s long nights. I used to dread them. But these days, I enjoy the chance to grab my copy of Regas’ 100 Things, slip out into the crisp night air, and spend a little extra time looking up.

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