The Vault of the Heavens

Darkness Reveals the Beauty of the Stars at Great Basin National Park 

It’s so dark that I can’t see my hand in front of my face − or anything else for that matter − without my headlamp illuminated. I’m in Great Basin National Park (GBNP), 8,000 feet above sea level, and the silence is nearly as total as the darkness. The soft babble of a nearby creek intermingles with the hushed conversation of my friends as we feel our way around our campsite. I’m no stranger to the wilderness. I spend my free time dropping off grid and ripping around Nevada’s back roads in my Subaru Impreza Outback Sport, so with my Subaru in tow now, in one sense I feel right at home. Yet the extreme remoteness of Great Basin is something else again − delightfully haunting, disorienting, and hard to explain if you’ve not experienced it for yourself. Bathed in the ambient glow of cities as so many of us are, we’re largely blinded by the light. Around these parts, light pollution is a dirty word − there isn’t any of it − and the National Park Service (NPS) is working hard at protecting the increasingly endangered purity of the darkness here. 

Embracing the Dark

With my vision limited, the rest of my senses are heightened. I step on a twig and the crisp snap of its breaking seems oddly amplified. A hypnotic blend of the scents of bristlecone pine and sage cascades over me and fills my head. I’m swallowed up in the endless night, and I feel small. I reach up to turn off my headlamp, and the darkness, which was kept at bay from the bright glare of the lamp, rushes in and becomes absolute. Surrendering to that blackness, my eyes gradually adjust, and I look up to discover my hoped-for reward: the waiting stars. Millions upon millions of stars, galaxies, nebulas, and constellations are dazzling and seemingly infinite. This is why I’ve come here; to behold a view of the far heavens that is increasingly rare in this country and often hidden by the dulling, ceaseless glare of cities. This unobstructed view is why I’ve come to attend the Great Basin Astronomy Festival

Great Basin Astronomy Festival

Night and Day

Each autumn, astronomers from all over the country rendezvous in this pristine pocket of paradise for the festival, on their own dime and vacation time. It’s that good. The skies at GBNP are considered to be one of the last truly dark skies in America and consequently a pilgrimage destination for stargazers. Great Basin is also considered to be one of the quietest places in the nation, making it a welcome refuge for anyone looking to take a break from the persistent low roar of modern civilization. 

Derek Demeter, director of the Emil Buehler Planetarium at Seminole State College and keynote speaker of the 2015 Astronomy Festival, rates GBNP as the number one place to stargaze in America. “The sheer darkness and the amount of stars you can see without light pollution is absolutely astonishing. The high altitude and the very dry Nevada air combine to make the sky very transparent.”

Taking In the Night Skies

There are many who have never seen the celestial wonders of the true night sky, but the NPS is looking to change that. Their Night Skies Program includes free astronomy lectures and workshops that provide meaningful context for the spectacular nighttime show and underscore the importance of protecting the night skies for future generations. Attending the program made me realize that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d given my undivided attention to stargazing, to look beyond the Earth, to get a real experience of my literal position in the universe. I’d become lost in the hubbub of life − it happens to everyone. This dose of off-grid solitude was just what the doctor ordered. Demeter agrees, “The stars have always been a very important part of human history, and I think most people have lost their connection with the stars,” he says. “The night sky has been our way of keeping track of time and understanding the cycle of the year. When people witness this for themselves, there is an emotional connection that can be established first-hand.”

New Ways to See in the Dark

I was completely enamored with presentations given at Astro Fest because it offered up some pretty outstanding interactive sessions, like long-exposure photography workshops and telescope viewing. With our headlamps set to shine red only (anything else would blow out your vision with unwanted light), we slowly made our way to the event. Though my unaided view of the night sky was astonishingly clear, the pros had brought in high-powered telescopes − the kind you need to climb a ladder to peer into − to allow us to dial in nebulas and globular clusters. Festival participant and Subaru Forester owner Jonathan Martinez was impressed. “I’ve spent a great deal of time in the backcountry and I bet I can pick out more constellations and stars than most people,” Martinez says, “but there are so many at Great Basin that it’s almost impossible to pick out the most familiar clusters. It’s disorienting and incredible all at one time. The detail is extraordinary.”

Blinded by the Light

Martinez wasn’t the only one a tad bewildered by the incredible richness of the tapestry of the night sky; as I turned to go, I saw one attendee staring up at the dense field of stars remark, “It’s just a shame that it’s so cloudy out tonight!” 

I just shook my head and smiled. There was not a single cloud in the sky. What she mistook for clouds and was obviously seeing for the very first time in her life was a crystal clear view of her own home: the Milky Way. 

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