One of my favorite things to do is to sit outside by my fireplace and look up at the stars on a clear night. Viola Christy,a co-worker of mine, encouraged me to get a telescope and I did that and have enjoyed locating the planets with the help of Google Sky. I look through the scope, locate things, and then sit down again by the fireplace and contemplate how tiny we really are in comparison to what lies out there in the night sky and what is beyond somewhere where we can’t see at all. I have always been fascinated with the night sky and it all started a long time ago………….in a galaxy far, far away………..just kidding.
Actually the start of this fascination began when my dad bought me an Army surplus tent and diligently constructed a flat location in the back yard. Now my dad, being the mechanical engineer, had to have the lot for the tent perfectly level and to add to my comfort, he put Army cots in the tent for my friends and I to use during our overnight “camping” in the backyard during the summers of my youth. Many times, I would get up in the middle of the night to use the facilities because my mom would leave the back door open. Not primitive camping by any stretch and I always knew that I could come back inside the house if anything spooked me. But most often, I would come back and before I crawled back on the cot, I would sit outside and look up at the stars and wonder what was out there.
Smells are unique at night and the air has a special aroma especially around this time of year when the leaves are changing and the temperature stops to drop. Things are awfully quiet except for the crickets at 3 in the morning, but the brilliance of the heavens continues to shine well into daybreak. I found myself looking up at all hours of the night and I still do today as in the example of the recent meteor shower only visible after midnight and before 6 AM. There I was, just like when I was a young lad, looking up at shooting stars at 4 AM. My family thought I was nuts. I told Jack that I located Saturn in the telescope and asked if he wanted to come out and see it the next night. He said,” thanks Dad, but I can see it way better on the internet.” Nice.
When I was in college and shortly afterwards, I had the itch to backpack and regularly used the Laurel Ridge Hiking Trail for my weekend excursions. I reserved and slept in the lean-tos along the trail, and first came up with my handy dandy way to light a fire. The state DNR always provided firewood. However, many times it was green and it was difficult to start a fire. I always liked to camp and backpack in the fall when the air was cooler and there were no bugs to fight. But fires were always a challenge until I bought myself a Bernz-o-Matic torch and some fire starter bricks. With these tools, you can start a fire out of concrete blocks if you had to, and I always made sure I had my torch and blocks with me in my pack. I still use it today outside at my fireplace. Once I got the fire started, and my pad and sleeping bag set up, I once again, spent the night looking up and to my surprise, saw many more stars in the Laurel Highlands than at my house on Siebert Road due to almost no light pollution from streetlights, neighborhood lighting and malls. I had a great time by myself out there in the woods and as strange as it may seem,I enjoy my own company. The stars once again accompanied me and it was comforting to fall asleep under a starlit canopy deep in the Allegheny Mountains.
My ski/hiking trips to Tuckerman Ravine up in New Hampshire allowed me to camp out for a week and climb and ski during the day. See my early blog posts on this subject. Over the years I learned a lot of good things from my mistakes. For instance, don’t make a week’s worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from a loaf of bread and stack them all back in the bread bag. After a week, you have a peanut butter dough ball because you have slept on it, picked it apart during lunch, and shoved it around in your pack all week. Lesson learned in food preparation. Freeze dried foods work much better. I was always amused at some of my friends who had little experience in camping or skiing in such a daunting place. One friend who was a very good local ski racer, was so intimidated at the steepness of the skiing that he didn’t dare remove his skis during a walk sidewards from one ravine to the next. He walked over rocks on his way and practicaly destroyed his skis. He then came back and as I lit up my campstove that evening and was getting some water to boil, I found him cooking his hot dog over the flame. Obviously he had little to no camping experience and it was a humbling experience for him to be with a bunch of good skiers who also knew how to cook things in boiling water. Some people are fish out of water in the woods, but thanks to my dad and my college backpacking trips, I educated myself on outdoor living. And, again, my friends in the celestial canopy kept me company at the wee, small hours of the morning.
When my son Jack was young, I bought a two man tent and we began to sleep out in the yard in the summer. Sometimes he liked it and sometimes he didn’t, and wanted to go back to his bed. But I always picked the starlit nights and as I told him at a very young age about the North Star and the constellations, I was amazed at what he retained. I tucked him back in his bed on some of those nights and since I had the tent already set up, I went back out and looked up through the top of the netting on the tent and saw my friends in the heavens as always twinkling down on me as I drifted off to sleep. The teenage years have limited our camping experiences but I have had the opportunity to use that tent on several overnight bicycle outings where I have opted against a hotel or college dorm accomodations and reseved a space for our tent on the grounds. As the bicycle crowd started to calm down and the campers began to prepare to go to sleep, there I was in my camp chair, reading by the light of my lantern, and enjoying the night air once again from the comfort of my dome tent. What is it that attracts me to looking at stars in the night? I have tried to outline it here but there are so many relaxing reasons that I can’t list them all. I have had the experience of seeing the Northern Lights at night up in Maine, seeing the stars rise over the Maroon Bells in Colorado, and watched hundreds of shooting stars lying on my back in a field in Yosemite. My family was too tired to take that adventure in on our trip out there but I went and it was the best celestial show that I have ever seen. Even the ranger laughed and commented that he is always upstaged by the shooting stars during his presentation on Stargazing in Yosemite. The “ooohs” and “ahhhs” drown out his monologue regularly.
As I get older, I appreciate more and more the things that my dad did for me as a young lad. He was not a camper. He was not a skier. But he and my mom made sure I was exposed to many things and I will never forget the old Army surplus tent at the corner of our lot, standing at attention, through rain and clear nights, waiting for a little boy to come out, look at the stars, and fall asleep on the cot with the tent flaps tucking him in at night…..under a starlit canopy.