I had a lengthy drive home tonight, and decided to take the country roads instead of the highway. I enjoy that feeling of being the only person on the road, and the random houses and abandoned structures that roll by at uneven intervals give my imagination something to mull over as I pass through the darkness.
At some point on the ride, I realized that in the darkness I could see the stars through my windshield. I pulled off onto the gravel sidewall, turned off my lights, opened the window and stuck my head out, eyes turned upward. For a moment, I was able to connect with some stars that I’m sure I haven’t seen in quite some time.
The stars have always fascinated me (and my love of them is perhaps matched only by my love of attempting to catch frogs). At one point, I wanted to be an astronaut. My dad would bring home books about the space shuttle, I had built a model of the Discovery, and there was a time I was looking to go to Space Camp for a summer. At some point in my high school career I realized that my love and understanding of literature and English greatly outweighed my disdain and ignorance of Math and Science. Shortly thereafter, I abandoned a life as a scientist; but my love of the stars remained.
In ’99 I was in Chile shooting for an adventure travel show, and we found ourselves in a small village in the Atacama desert for about a week. The village’s only source of power was a generator that would run for a short period of time at night, but would be turned off after running for a couple of hours. After those few hours, the village would be powerless, and the nights would be illuminated by candles and fire places that generated heat, and a low murmur of conversation and laughter from the weary travelers who gathered around for heat. I remember thinking that if the rest of the world ended on January 1st, 2000, this tiny place wouldn’t have noticed or cared.
One of the more notable things about the Atacama is that it is one of the most arid places on Earth. There are literal mountains made of salt that, should it rain enough, would dissolve. On our trip, however, there were clouds in the sky; and while lacking in novelty for me, they were something for the locals to marvel at during the day.
Two hours from the village was a geyser field, and our intention was to get up rather early and catch footage of the sun coming up over the mountains, the morning rays reflecting off the billowing steam plumes from the field. It must have been around 3 or 4 am when we decided to leave, and as my roommate (a gentleman from Canada) and I left our room that morning, I looked up at the sky as I closed the door, and noticed these huge clouds amongst stars in the sky. “It looks like there will be clouds in the sky today too,” I said. “That will make the locals happy.” My companion looked up at the sky, smiled, and laughed a little as he shook his head. “Those aren’t clouds, Sean. That’s the Milky Way.” I looked back up and, understanding what I was looking at, marveled at the sight. I hadn’t seen anything as beautiful before, and haven’t since. It’s an image that is etched in my memory and heart, and I look forward to being able to see the Galaxy with my own eyes again sometime soon.
One of my favorite books is actually a nonfiction piece by Michael Crichton called Travels. It’s a loose collection of stories from his life, joining together his experiences with both “outer” and “inner” travel as he aged and gained that wisdom, insight, and experience that only comes with…. well, getting old.
I had read the book sometime before I left for Chile, and a passage in the preface had left an indelible mark on me… but I can’t say that I understood it – truly understood it – until that moment at four in the morning outside my room with a Canadian laughing gently at me as I marveled at the Galaxy.
“Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am… Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.
I eventually realized that direct exoerience is the most valuable experience I can have. Western man is so surrounded by ideas, so bombarded with opinions, concepts, and information structures of all sorts, that it becomes difficult to experience anything without the intervening filter of theses structures. And the natural world – our traditional source of direct insights – is rapidly disappearing. Modern city-dwellers cannot even see the stars at night. This humbling reminder of man’s place in the greater scheme of things, which human beings formerly saw once every twenty-four hours, is denied them. It’s no wonder that people lose their bearings, that they lose track of who they really are, and what their lives are really about.”
– Michael Crichton, Travels (xii)
Crichton, M. (2002, November 5). Travels. Harper Paperbacks