Last night I witnessed the Perseid Meteor showers from a nearby peak in the Central California mountains. A huge, yellow half moon hung in the sky overhead and the stars were bright.
Of course my friends and I were not the only people excited about seeing the best viewing of the meteor showers at their yearly peak. Nearby Mount Pinos is a popular viewing spot for amateur astronomers for what’s called dark-sky observing in the summer and fall months. (MP)
A large paved, flat area lies at the end of the road that leads you up and up a twisty mountain road to 8300 feet. There were hundreds of people already there at 1:00 a.m. Maybe there were more. It was dark. As we parked the car and neared the center of the lot we got a lecture on good observing manners from an informed amateur astronomer who kept telling us she didn’t know anything, but obviously was more informed than we were.
You could only guess who the people were because it was so dark and chilly. We donned parkas, hoodies, and gloves. Did I mention it was chilly? And dark?
What impressed me was the respectful hush. This was hardly your hooligan football crowd. Voices were low, car lights were turned off immediately out of respect for the astronomers. The night was as silent as it gets amid hundreds of people. Parked cars ringed the lot along with RVs and camping vehicles. People had driven hours to get out of their cars and turn their eyes skyward.
Knots of people gathered around telescopes and cameras set on tripods in low-voiced conversation about the technical challenges of astronomers and astrophotographers. I’m told the regulars know each other and take observing seriously. In winter the lot hosts the nordic base camp for x-country skiing and is the base for several surrounding campgrounds.
The four of us placed our blanket on the pavement, lay back, and got ready for the show. Wow! Flash! Streak! “Did you see that one!” Swift as a camera flash they darted across the sky. Gone in a moment. No do overs. A transitory moment.
You had to be looking at exactly the right sector of the sky to see them, and heads don’t exactly rotate on a stalk which would have been convenient. Observing requires patience. The comet is not casting off meteor showers every second.
What got in my way was having recently seen a fireworks competition in Montreal. The largest pyrotechnics competition of its kind in the world, the Montreal International Fireworks Competition has been going strong since 1985 and remains one of this city’s top summer attractions.
The occasional Wow! Flash! streak of a meteor across the sky didn’t compare and I didn’t try. I was there on a mountain peak with my friends enjoying a wondrous show that people everywhere in the world were seeing, perhaps not all at the same time. But we had all stayed up late and carved out a moment from the secular world to sense the infinite.
For once the world was united in a common experience.
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