After a 13-hour drive from Sequoia to Sedona — during which I nearly ran out of gas on a beautiful but desolate stretch of highway 40 (if it hadn’t been for Max‘s hybrid endurance, I absolutely would have!) — I squeaked into Red Rock Country well past dark and barely in time for my star-gazing session.
Nils Allen from Evening Sky Tours was our guide for the evening. I learned that his romance with the night sky was ignited while back in his college days when he was asked to teach Astronomy 101 for non-science majors. Hooked, he never looked back — only up.
Nils told us we would start by focusing on the two brightest things in the sky that night: Sirius and Jupiter. He turned his hulking telescope on Jupiter and we each took turns peeking through the eyepiece at the planet and its moons, which happened to be in lined up in a perfect row — two above and two below with Jupiter sandwiched between.
“Now, just for fun we’re going to check out what my wife refers to as ‘sky bling,’” Nils said. As soon as I looked through the scope, I knew why. Sirius was twinkling in spasms like a frenetic disco ball.
As coyotes began to add their yips and howls to the night soundtrack, Nils used a laser to point out the constellations that were making an appearance this time of year. He aimed his beam at Ursa Major and Minor, Gemini, Orion, and Leo the Lion, as he spoke of the lore surrounding them.
“Remember everything you’re looking at right now is part of the Milky Way Galaxy,” Nils said, “just like we are.” Then he adjusted his scope, turned to the group and said: “Are you ready to look at the most distant thing you’ll ever see in your life?”
The Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as Messier 51a, is some 35 million light years away. Messier and its buddy NGC 5195 looked like two fuzzy lint balls through the eyepiece, but considering that each of those light years is equivalent to six trillion miles, the underwhelming resolution made a lot of sense.
I had heard that stargazing could be therapeutic — that by taking the focus off the self and projecting it into space, people could quell feelings of isolation — and that the awe it inspired could act as a salve for painful past experiences. I’d been intrigued before, but as I stared up at the distant galaxies, I was inching toward being a believer.
I could see why something so immense could put what seemed to be overwhelming problems into perspective. Especially with an expert by your side who could explain the science behind the magic. I was curious what Nils thought about all this.
“Most folks live busy, focused lives that keep them thinking almost entirely locally and immediately, but there is so much beauty and wonder outside of that myopic mindset,” he said. “For me it’s even a spiritual experience, like I am seeing the face of God himself.”
Whatever your beliefs, Nils remains convinced that “engaging with the broader universe and striving to appreciate it on many different levels” has value — the kind that is “mind-expanding and life-enriching.”
I’d agree with that.
Nils finished up our session a bit closer to home: our moon. I’d never seen it in so much detail before, and while the mountains and craters were familiar from photographs, seeing them with my own eyes was a completely different experience. It reminded me that everything I saw had more dimensions to it than I often realized and that much of life is about perspective.
Thanks for the reminder, Nils!