Stars, Silhouettes, and Cloud-Racing in the Atacama Desert
Long before GPS and modern satellite imaging, sea-based navigators and land-based farmers simply observed the stars in the night sky, using them to predict the weather and find their way home. The stars represented not just prosperity and safety for these explorers and wanderers, but also a deep source of mystery for telling powerful tales and mystical stories.
Under some of those very same stars, my friend Charles and I spent three nights in the Atacama Desert, Chile this past May. We wanted to see and photograph the Milky Way and learn the names of the southern constellations. The Atacama Desert is one of the driest deserts in the world, making it ideal for star-gazing: out there in its unobstructed plains, the Milky Way arcs across the entire curvature of the sky, from horizon to horizon.
Each night we set our alarms for 1 a.m. — carefully calculated and timed against the crescent phases and rise of the moon — because that was when the sky was darkest; that was when the stars came out like stationary fireflies caught in the giant tapestry of the night.
We spent the first two nights in the desert pointing fingers up into the expansive hemisphere above us and tracing the imaginary shapes of the southern constellations.
In one of many late night conversations, we came to the gradual realization that we wanted to do more than just take photos for ourselves. We wanted to share that sense of wonder we felt with everyone in our Remote Year community, while also finding a way to say thank you for being on this unforgettable journey together. Given where we were, and the incredible setting, we decided to create silhouetted pictures of individual letters set against the Milky Way. Each letter represented the first initial of every person’s name. The photos would then be printed in postcard-form with a personalized message written on the back for each of the seventy people.
Through the golden hours of the afternoon and into the red-violet dusk of the evening, we breadcrust-cut, taped, and carved out seventeen large cardboard letters.
When we woke up at 1 a.m. on our last morning, we discovered that there was an unexpected and massive cloud system that had moved in overnight. It covered hundreds of square kilometers above us, obscuring all the stars; and with a moon that had yet to rise, we found ourselves cloaked in absolute darkness.
The night’s satellite images showed that the congregation of clouds was thick, expansive, and moving fast. We quickly realized we had lost our chance of seeing and photographing the stars. Disheartened, I started unloading the car, taking out the letters we had spent so much time creating.
“Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
— The Old Astronomer, by Sarah Williams
Charles wasn’t convinced that the night was lost. What if — what if we just drove, and kept driving? His bold idea was that our best and only chance to see the stars again would be to out-race the clouds; to get out from under their shadow.
We drove into the dark night, playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the clouds, daring ourselves to accelerate and go faster. We strained our necks and pressed our faces against the car windows, looking up for any dots of light above us.
After two hours of straightways and winding turns, the first twinkling of a star finally appeared. We had out-raced the clouds. Elated, we pulled the car onto the side of the road, and turned the headlights off, suddenly plunging ourselves back into a familiar darkness. But this time, the darkness above us was punctuated by a multitude of beacon-like stars, guiding us from the car out onto the quiet plains of the desert.
Under the dark dome of the night sky, far away from the orange glow of city lights, the stars looked like countless grains of scattered salt. In spite of their numbers, the stars gave off so little light that we needed to expose each letter’s photograph for at least fifteen seconds. Charles and I took turns standing as still as possible in the cold temperatures of the dry, nighttime desert. For each letter we held above our heads, we patiently counted the seconds while refusing to shiver whenever the biting wind blew; the subtlest twitch or movement would cause the long-exposure photo to blur.
By the time we captured photographs for all seventeen letters, the clouds had caught up to us in their relentless pursuit. We loaded the car and said grateful goodbyes to the guardians above that had guided our journey throughout the night. We turned the car around and willingly plunged back into the shadow of the clouds, quiet and exhausted in our celebratory lap. We were headed home, with gifts in tow, and our own star-inspired tale to tell.
A long-exposure photograph is a time capsule that captures a singular passage of time. It is a dazzling collection of all the light that emanated from the stars within and outside our observable galaxy. It is strange to think that the starlight we presently see in our night sky began its journey out into the universe thousands or even millions of years ago. At the moment such starlight finally graces our earthbound eyes, having crossed all that space and time, the original star from which it radiated could have extinguished its inner flames eons before.
You can download the set of 17 letters here. To be shared and used freely with credit back to us.
Johnson is an outdoor adventurer and indoor consultant, evangelizing for smarter tools and more responsive business practices. Follow his travels on Instagram and read more of his travel journal at The Wonder Year.