I’ve always been interested in the stars. My favorite unit in 8th grade Earth Science was the one where we learned about different constellations and what they looked like and how to identify them. My teacher was kind of creepy, and he flirted with the pretty girls in class by asking them which was their favorite constellation and then drawing it on their hand. On my hand he drew Orion. See what I mean? Kind of a creep.
So, despite my casual interest in the night sky, I have never seen a meteor shower, even though I’ve always wanted to. It seemed like I always heard about it after the fact. Or, if I heard about it in time, it was the kind of thing where you had to go see it at 2am on a Tuesday night, and I was never motivated enough to do that, at least not in the middle of the week.
But last week a good friend of mine informed me ahead of time both of the fact that a meteor shower was happening and when would be the best times to see it. Luckily, the best times were a Thursday night and a Friday night. So I chose the Friday night, bundled up in many, many layers, and left my house at 11pm to head up north to an open, rural area where I could clearly see the sky and stars.
The farther away from the city I got, the more gradually I began to see increasing numbers of stars. After an hour of driving and several left and right turns and a lot of creeping along down very dark, two-lane, narrow roads, I finally settled into a spot I thought would work. I was in a network of paved but snow-covered roads that appeared to be the bare bones of a brand-new housing development. There were cul-de-sacs and dead ends but nothing else. Just land and trees. So I parked my car in the darkness and got out.
I looked up at the sky and realized I had no idea what I was actually looking for. It occurred to me that I wasn’t sure what a meteor shower even was. I’d been assuming it was just a show of various falling and shooting stars. But, faced with the expanse of starry night I now stared into, I was hit by the vastness of it all. I puzzled over exactly how to watch the sky. It had become clear early on that I would need to be outside my car rather than in it. But I had no desire to just stand around and stare up into the sky like a dummy. I eventually decided that climbing onto the roof of my car would be the best course of action. So I hauled myself up to the roof and just lay there, hands stuffed into my pockets, staring straight up.
The thing is, what I saw was like nothing I’d ever seen before. For one thing, I’d never seen so many stars in the sky at one time. The aforementioned friend had told me to locate the Big Dipper and that, if I could do that, I would find the bulk of the meteor shower action just below its handle…or something like that. Problem was, I couldn’t locate ANYTHING familiar in that sky. It was the most overcrowded sky I have ever seen. I could not find a Big Dipper or a Little Dipper or a North Star or an Orion (although I don’t think it’s Orion’s season anyway…). I mean, nothing. Absolutely nothing. So I gave up on that and just stared. What stood out to me the most was the sheer, pulsating quality the sky had. It just seemed to be literally bursting and throbbing with moving light. And I don’t mean falling stars. There were certainly those, but I just mean, it had a pulsing rhythm, resonant of a drumbeat. I’ve never seen the sky in quite such an alive state before.
When I looked due north and straight up, there was one star in particular – an ultra-bright one – that seemed itself to be moving, but not in a falling or shooting star kind of way. It moved sort of like the planchettes that accompany Ouija boards do in the movies: slowly, hovering, sometimes a little jerky. If I focused on it – and only it – for a certain amount of time, then it seemed to become the only star in the entire, crowded sky. Trick of the eyes, I guess, I don’t know.
I lay on the roof of my car, shivering, teeth chattering, the cold seeping into my toes, my nose, my fingertips, everywhere. But it didn’t seem to matter. The tremors were inconsequential compared to the show playing up above. It probably would’ve been a better experience if I’d done more planning and brought a blanket, and maybe a thermos with a warm beverage of some kind in it, but I didn’t do those things. I layered up, hopped in the car, and drove because I had no idea what I was doing or what I was really looking for, and I can’t say – even now, after the fact – that I even really know exactly what I saw.
At times I got lost in the alternating blackness and brightness, and if I got into a comfortable stare, I sometimes had the sensation that there was so much more going on up there than my naked eye could see. The feeling that there was something…more…up there never lasted long, but it was persistent and recurrent.
And then the most magical moment happened while I stared into an inky black expanse. I was trying something new with my eyes. I had been letting my gaze dart frantically around the whole sky, trying to keep up with shooting stars that always seemed to be just in my periphery and never in my straight, full-on line of sight. So for a moment, I quieted myself and decided to train my eyes just on one spot – not one star, but more like a defined square patch – in the sky. I did that for about fifteen seconds, and then there was a flickering in an empty black space within the patch. And then all of a sudden a star burned there, in the exact same spot that had been totally unoccupied two seconds prior, and it burned and shone just as if it had been there the entire time. It seemed so sure of itself and its existence that I blinked and began to second-guess what I had seen. I don’t know how scientific it is that a star will just turn on in the black sky out of nowhere. Perhaps it was just another trick of the eyes, who knows. Nobody was looking at that exact same spot at that exact same moment in order to corroborate my story, but – as my favorite necklace (and Kurt Vonnegut) says, “So it goes.”
I could make some cheesy-sounding and inauthentic, contrived-feeling references to the shepherds and wise men who followed the star in the east to Bethlehem, or to God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. But I won’t do that because I don’t want to cheapen the experience, either for myself, or for anyone who might be reading. I did have a cool and unique experience that night, and I’m glad I went. I spent about two hours out there in the dead of night, in the rural quiet of “just outside Kansas City.” And I hope I will never forget the giddy way I felt lying on top of my car and looking up at the brightest darkness I’d ever seen, wishing I did childlike and impulsive things like that more often in my life but also simply soaking up the present moment. It was a lovely evening, and my only regret is that the camera on my phone was not adequate enough to immortalize any of it. Maybe next time.