Desert Trip: Stars and Planes

This Sunday evening I am concluding a weekend trip to the high desert of southern California, to an area where I grew up as a small child and subsequently spent many family weekends and subsequent summer weeks and weekends throughout my college and young adult years. I have a deep affinity for this place.

One goal of this weekend trip to the desert was to get outside at night and see the stars, in a way not possible from any urban area, not the LA area where I lived until three years ago, not the SF Bay Area where I live now. And so despite a few wispy lingering clouds over the desert today, and a chilling, building wind this evening, I drove out to the far north end of the valley, that valley, away from the town lights to the south (and city lights to the far southwest), and pulled off the road, turned off the car, turned off the lights, and stood outside, and despite the chill wind, at 49F, stood outside waiting for my eyes to adjust.

I saw Orion, mighty in the southern sky. Sirius below left; Gemini above left. Turn around: there’s the Big Dipper, its handle downward at the northern horizon, the north horizon where black land meets dark sky and merges. Above left, the W constellation of Cassiopeia. And sure enough, the band of the Milky Way, running through Cassiopeia, along through Auriga and across the sky to where the lingering cloudy fuzziness meets the inescapable glow of southern light.

I got out my binoculars. Yes, the Orion Nebula. Yes, the Pleiades, the Hyades. Turn around, there’s Mizar and Alcor, easily split.

I recalled a familiar paradox about viewing the sky in clear, dark conditions. It is that the more stars are visible, the less obvious are the traditional constellations, because their prominent stars are drowned out by the surrounding sea of only slightly less brighter stars, that are increasingly visible in a very clear, very dark sky. This is especially true in binoculars (not in telescopes, where you tend to focus very closely on specific stars or objects); the field of view in binoculars shows even more stars than you see with the naked eye, more stars than you knew were there, and implying even more if your light-gathering power were even greater. It’s seemingly never-ending; and it is.

And tonight I confirmed a memory from my high school and college years, when I spent several weeks every summer in this desert place, for seven summers in a row, reading science fiction books by day and and stargazing by night, sometimes sleeping outside on a chaise lounge, to be awake before dawn to see the early morning stars, with a telescope I no longer have. That is, that in this place, this valley, I saw planes flying overhead, northwest from LA (southwest of this valley) to points northeast. As I adjusted my telescope to find nebulae or double stars, always overhead were these moving points of light, these tiny constellations of lights from those planes, sometimes flashing, sometimes not, but all moving from southwest to the northeast. And this: on a quiet dark night — not like tonight, too noisy with wind — you could hear the *sound* of those planes, but always from a position in the sky some degrees behind where you saw the lights. By the time the sound traveled to the ground from their height, the visible planes had moved on.

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