About a year and a half ago, a friend told me about this really amazing spot here in Pennsylvania, where the skies at night are SO DARK you can actually see the Milky Way with your naked eyes. It’s an astronomical observation field in a state park called Cherry Springs, just two hours North of me.
I live in a medium-sized college town, as well lit as any modern civic center, where you can only see a handful of stars after the sun goes down — even on totally clear evenings. To me, the idea of looking up into the night sky and seeing a whole galaxy of stars is incredibly appealing. Particularly because I’ve been meditating on Earth’s place in the cosmos lately, and hoping to develop good relations with folks from other star systems. But also, just because stellar structures are so outrageously beautiful, it frustrates me that I hardly ever see them in person.
Needless to say, ever since I heard about this spot, I’ve been pining for a visit. But it’s a fair distance, and my daily family obligations make overnight stays difficult, so it took me quite awhile to get ‘round to it.
By this Summer I decided I couldn’t put it off anymore. So I went to the park’s Web site, got my plans together, and prepared to make the trip with my two sons and my good friend Michael.
Here’s what we were expecting to see:
Pretty fabulous, huh?
I’d chosen the date of our trip based on my research. Not only was it close to the new moon (the darkest time of the month), it was also the weekend when this big astronomy club was going to be there with all their cool telescopes — plus food and speakers and other activities— for their annual get-together. They call it the Black Forest Star Party. That sounded REALLY good. So I paid my registration fee, put it on my calender, and started imagining how great it was all going to be.
A couple days later, I randomly ran into a friend at a wedding who said she’d just been up to Cherry Springs a couple weeks before, and stumbled into a similar event with a different astronomy club that was having THEIR annual fest. They let her look through a bunch of big telescopes and everything. She said it was just fantastic. I was really getting pumped at this point.
Then the day of the trip arrived…
After a week spent airing out the old tent , buying supplies and packing a weekend’s worth of necessities into my little Saturn Ion, I checked the weather forecast for Cherry Springs. It didn’t look great; but it didn’t look terrible either. Maybe a light rain and a few clouds, then clearing off by nightfall, with some fog rolling in over night. So we kept our hopes up and stuck to the schedule.
Our two-hour drive up there was a blast. We laughed a lot. My kids and I caught up with Mikey (who is their Godfather, minus the Catholicism part), just joking around and enjoying the beautiful, winding trip through miles upon miles of deep forest.
But as we arrived at the park, got oriented, and pitched our tent for a night of star-gazing, it began to set in that maybe we weren’t gonna get to see the Milky Way after all…
The entire sky looked like this:
It wasn’t dark yet, but we could see one star already. The sun. The hazy cloud cover was so thick, my son mistook it for the moon. “Wow,” he said. “That’s the sun? I can look right at it and it doesn’t hurt my eyes.”
We got ice cream cones from the little trailer. We listened to some students from Penn State’s Lunar Lion team as they made a presentation. We took a hike through the woods, and joked about staying armed and alert (in case of attack from this big family group that had scowled at us menacingly when we pulled up to our tenting spot).
And when it started to rain, we took off our muddy boots and climbed into the tent, eating peanut butter & chocolate sandwiches, and mixed nuts, and all the other snack foods we brought. And my older son showed us a game on his new tablet. And we told fart jokes.
In other words, we made the best of it.
A little while later, we pulled out our sleeping bags, laid them out on our air mattresses, and slept under the cloudy, utterly starless sky. And you know what?
It didn’t suck.
Even when my almost-14-year-old acted like the teenager he is, giving me crap at every opportunity, and being a frantic, unruly bundle of nervous energy; it didn’t suck. (That’s him in this story’s title photo with the pillow on his head).
Even when my 11 year-old son’s iPod alarm went off at midnight, blasting “I… WANNA ROCK-N-ROLL ALL NIGHT!” by Kiss, causing me to frantically rummage beneath his unconscious, sleeping-bagged body to turn it off before any of our quiet neighbors got too pissed; it didn’t suck.
(He’d set the alarm before going to sleep, hoping that maybe the clouds would clear off in the wee hours of night. They didn’t).
As it turned out, we didn’t see a single patch of blue sky until about 8 a.m. the next morning, at which point the clouds began to roll away to reveal an absolutely gorgeous late-August morning.
Schedules wouldn’t allow us to stay another night, so we shrugged off the star-less-ness of it all and packed up all our wet and muddy stuff into the little car.
“It was a good warm up,” Michael wisely noted. “I still had fun,” said one of my kids. “Me too,” said the other one. And so did I. Turns out, the fun of just getting away and goofing off with the guys is pretty awesome in and of itself. Because at the end of the day, the people you love are more important than the Milky Way.
So when my teenager wasn’t satisfied with the breakfast offerings at the little trailer, we went looking for something more substantial. And lo and behold, it turned into a totally unexpected and exciting adventure.
But to read about that, you’ll have to wait for THIS story:
Your Plans Might Not Work Out …
(but have a good time anyway)
[PART TWO OF TWO]