Wherein the author takes an awe-inspiring trip to A Dark Sky Reserve.
Get Out To
Central Idaho’s Dark Sky Reserve.
Gear Up For
Superlative celestial gazing.
Romantics, families, amateur and budding astronomers.
I stepped out of the car in who-knows-where Idaho and was swallowed by darkness so complete that it would have given me the heebie-jeebies if there hadn’t been a dozen other people with me on this stargazing adventure. We were there to see the Perseid meteor shower, and our location had been chosen because it is one of the darkest places on Earth. It lived up to that billing. There was no moon, no streetlights, no car lights, no house lights, no nothing.
I looked up and the Big Dipper dominated the view, like a galactic welcome sign beckoning us to gape in slack-jawed wonder at the universe. Before I even had time to look away — seriously, I had not been out of the car for five seconds — a meteor streaked across my line of vision, from right to left, 2 o’clock to 9 o’clock, just to the left of the Big Dipper, so that I saw both the shooting star and the constellation at the same time. It was so startling that I reacted — “Oooh!” — like someone pinched me. Nobody else saw it; it was my own little show. If I never saw another meteor, those first five seconds alone would have been worth the trip to Idaho.
And I saw dozens more.
Every August, Earth passes through dust and debris left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, and the result is a celestial extravaganza known as the Perseid meteor shower. The meteors are pieces of the comet heating up as they enter our atmosphere. When they get hot enough, they burst into flames and prompt those of us lucky enough to witness it to ooh, aah, and if we’re young and/or hopeful enough, to make a wish.
My wife, kids, and I have watched the Perseid meteor shower from our home in St. Louis and from my parents’ home in Michigan. From those places, it was neat, I guess, to be rewarded for gazing at the sky for hours with the sight of a half-dozen or so meteors. But we never got far enough away from light pollution to see a breathtaking show.
That’s why I had great expectations when Chevrolet invited me to the Dark Sky Reserve in central Idaho to observe the shower last August. I also had great expectations for the hiking, biking, and fishing I planned to do in Ketchum. And those three were, indeed, all great — Idaho is an underrated adventure destination. But the Perseid meteor shower was the highlight of what I came to think of as an upside-down weekend. It was an adventure trip, and yet the most thrilling moments came with my butt planted in a lawn chair and my feet set firmly on the ground. The action was miles skyward. The biggest thrill was in the watching. It was also the only time I’ve ever rooted for darkness to triumph over light.
The first sign that my trip to Idaho would be unusual came when I stepped out of the Boise airport and into a Chevy Bolt EV. I have covered auto racing for 17 years, and I spend much of my time writing about massive NASCAR monstrosities that weigh 3,300 pounds, generate 850 horsepower, reach 200 miles per hour, and sound like a Metallica concert arguing with a jet engine. I confess I had doubts about the battery-powered egg on wheels that looked as though I could pick it up, fold it in half, and carry it in my pocket.
Then I drove the Bolt and learned I had seriously underestimated it.
It felt like driving a video game. There was no noise, no vibration, no physical sensation to verify for my body what my eyes were telling me — that we were flying. The speed limit on Interstate 84 was 80, and I did not adhere to it.
I rode shotgun to Juan, a fellow journalist, as he turned onto U.S. Highway 20. High desert surrounded us on every side. We cruised for miles without seeing a house, and the sparse population served as the first hint of the darkness that awaited us that night. Juan pulled the Bolt out of line and zipped past five cars at once. I peeked at the speedometer: We jumped from 70 to 93 in a blink. Later, when a Chevy official told us the Bolt’s top speed was 92, Juan and I tried not to look guilty.
That night, we all piled into Bolts (not to be confused with the sadly now-defunct Volt) and drove from our hotel in Ketchum to Galena Lodge, in the heart of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the first and only dark sky reserve in the United States and one of only 13 in the world.
Twenty years ago, municipalities in the region began efforts to protect the night sky, ultimately earning certification as a dark sky reserve from the International Dark Sky Association in December 2017. The reserve covers some 1,400 square miles in the Sawtooth and three other greater Rocky Mountain ranges. The IDA gave the central Idaho reserve “gold-tier status,” the highest ranking for night-sky quality, and a fancy and official way of confirming that it is really damn dark there.
After that brilliant opening meteor, I joked that I had seen what I had come to see and I could just go home. But there was so much more to come. We walked about half a mile to a field — I mean, I think it was a field. Inky blackness enveloped me, so I wasn’t really sure. What did I care anyway? It could have been a county fair midway and I barely would have noticed. All I wanted to do was look up. We set out lawn chairs and blankets and settled in. Experts say the human eye needs about 30 minutes to adjust to the dark. I didn’t need anywhere near that much time to be engrossed by it.
Stephen Pauley served as our intergalactic tour guide. Dr. Dark, as he’s called (he’s a retired surgeon), first got interested in astronomy in 1979, when he wanted to sail his 42-foot boat from Newport Beach, California, to Hawaii. To complete the journey, he needed to be able to navigate by the stars. He taught himself how, and he’s been hooked ever since.
Turning a universal metaphor on its head, Pauley extolled the enlightening power of darkness. Light obscures the beauty of the cosmos and leaves us in the dark about the universe. Eighty percent of the U.S. population live in areas with so much light pollution that they can’t see the Milky Way. But it hung over us like a hazy white mohawk stretched across the universe.
I called my wife in the middle of all of this. She was with our kids in Michigan; all of their eyes were heavenward, just like mine, as if we were on the same assignment, 1,783 miles apart. They saw one epic shooting star — my wife really raved about it, best she had ever seen, etc. I saw dozens in the same time frame and I wished I had brought them with me.
As Pauley talked, I focused on the constellation Perseus. The Perseid in Perseid meteor shower comes from Perseus. If I connected the dots in my mind, I could see the outline of the great Greek hero carrying the head of Medusa. I strained to remember high school Greek mythology: Perseus, son of Zeus and mortal Danaë, slayer of monsters and savior of Andromeda. My rumination came full circle when Pauley pointed out the Andromeda Galaxy, the only spiral galaxy other than the Milky Way visible to the naked eye from Earth.
I moved from sitting to standing to walking around the field, trying to find the best vantage point. I’d never seen so many stars. Time and distance spiraled all out of whack. The light from the stars entranced me, lulled me to sleep almost, as I pondered the size of the universe (big) and my place in it (not so much.) That light was, literally, millions of years old. What I was presently seeing had started its journey while dinosaurs roamed the earth. And I thought my flight from Minneapolis to Boise was long. The only appropriate reaction was stunned silence.
I broke that silence — spontaneously and often. I was unable to contain my excitement. Watching the meteors was like watching fireworks only I didn’t know when or where they would explode. Some meteors were a flicker I saw only out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes someone oohed and I was bummed that I missed it. Sometimes I aahed and someone else was bummed. Sometimes three or four people oohed at the same time, and I knew that was a good one. The really good ones lasted long enough that someone could aah and I could turn my head to catch the end of it.
The longest, brightest, and most oohed-and-aahed shooting star happened as I faced 3 o’clock to Perseus’ noon. To understand how long the tail was, hold your arm as if you’re pointing in amazement at a shooting star. Now look at your hand. The tail started where your vision starts and ended at your hand. It lasted long enough for me to cheer for it and then think, That’s the best one so far and it’s still going.
Pauley passed around binoculars that were so incredible I couldn’t use them. With the naked eye, I could see uncountable stars — big, small, solid, flickering, here, there, everywhere. The binoculars multiplied my vision by 18 and the number of stars by more than that.
I didn’t look through the binoculars for long because I wanted to see shooting stars and the binoculars narrowed my field of vision too much. It was like standing on top of a mountain, looking down on a forest and being able to see every leaf but only on one tree. I wanted to see everything, and the binoculars showed me too much of too little. Still, I would love to go back with those binoculars and slowly pan across the universe, taking in each star one by one, when there are no meteors to miss. That could take all night, which would be fine by me.
Photography: Travis Amick/courtesy Visit Sun Valley, Rob Marcroft/courtesy General Motors
From the April 2019 issue.