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Gazing at the Heavens

Look in all directions and you’ll see skies that play host to all manner of cloud formations—huge billowing clouds rising up to the roof of the sky, mackerel clouds, clouds scudding across the horizon, dark menacing clouds that augur an abrupt change in the weather, even the wispy pink and soft blue clouds which hover like angels long after sunset.  But this is just a taste of what heaven might be. Welcome to Wyoming!

In the earliest part of the day, when even the antelope remain somnolent and huddling together for warmth on the open range, hours before the unimpeded rays of the sun fall upon the land, I have convinced myself that an experience awaits me—something even more majestic than any sunrise or sunset.

It’s a voice from the past, my own, recalling something so emotive that I ambiguously embrace it.  The house is still as I throw on pants, socks and shoes, grab a jacket.  Before leaving the warmth of this home I grin at the stuffed coyote sharing my space in the living room—an animal which appears in its lifelike state and keeps the guests and house animals off balance. 

It’s the chill of the Plains I feel first as I emerge from the sliding glass doors. The fleece jacket will serve just fine.  Only one small bulb on the side of the house burns; it appears to be the solitary form of illumination within miles.

I’m excited and craving this treat. I crane my neck to look up at the night sky and become dizzy.  So dizzy that I’m on the verge of toppling over.  I gasp then steady myself to see the sky awash in stars, planets and cosmic dust.  It’s been many years since I’ve seen such a sight–the time I awoke my twin daughters on a camping trip to the Channel Islands and shared this miracle vision of the heavens. 

I am back at it but this time alone, with a lugubrious chill that seems appropriate for the moment.  My heartbeat slows as I search out old friends, iconic constellations—the Big Dipper not too far from the horizon, Orion the Hunter and his telltale belt of stars, Las Tres Marias, even the more distant Pleiades star cluster known as the “Seven Sisters” shimmers, resolute in casting their light on me after a journey of more than 400 light years.  These constellations remain in their righteous place in the sky since I was child…they’ll be there long after I’m gone.

I walk out the gravel driveway onto the inky tarmac road which awaits my long stride.  Each step takes me further and further away from the house plunging me into darkness, causing the night sky to become more and more resplendent. My first reflex is to utter, “Wow!” as my aching neck swivels to take in the Milky Way, then to reflexively exclaim, “My God!’’ Only a deity could put the Universe in motion like this. 

Is it the chill of the night or the emotions bubbling outward and upward that cause my eyes to tear up?  I’ve never been more alone or happy in these moments.  My thoughts revert to childhood, to a visit to the Hayden Planetarium with my father and younger brother.  I can still remember returning home under the Brooklyn street lights past the brick rowhouses, clutching our newly purchased star charts.  We pepper my father with so many questions about the stars and planets that he must surely grow weary.  We manage to find his large hands and make it home—the three of us. 

In these moments, I feel the loss of parents. Years ago they woke us children in the middle of the night at a remote New England cottage so we could marvel at a sky replete with stars. It tugs at my heart to recall it. I am forever that child. Forever grateful to have shared that moment with them.

In the darkness, looking up toward this blizzard of stars, I concede I am an orphan in the universe, humbled by my own insignificance.  Yet, I have a small role to play–I am witness to what the ancients once saw, can validate the mesmerizing effect of the night sky, its vastness and grandeur.  I will pass this great mystery on to our grandson.

It’s time to turn around and head back up the road to the house, the IPhone flashlight leading the way.  In a few hours there will be a sunrise unlike any other. If I can just recover a few hours of sleep, I might arrange to treat myself one more time. 

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