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A little prelude : “I was too sleepy”. Dear Husband, are you reading this?
A few years ago I didn’t know what a meteor shower was. I am not ashamed of my ignorance, as I have come a long way since. But I was certainly surprised at my ignorance, as I have always had a fondness for the stars and the galaxies. I had grown up in a small Himalayan town in India which afforded amazing unpolluted views of the night sky- where the stars appeared bigger than the plains and it was not uncommon to see shooting stars- that we would make a wish on. I think most people who grew up in India in the 90s made a wish upon a shooting star as Bollywood had immortalized that concept. Thank you Shahrukh Khan!
I knew that shooting stars were meteors- read that somewhere in astronomy class. But I didn’t know anything about a meteor “shower”. That there is a night every couple of months where the sky is ablaze with 100s of shooting stars! Wow- how had I missed this? Anyhow, I read some facebook post about a meteor shower taking place that night (2010). Obviously, I had no time to plan a stargazing trip and I didn’t want to set up camp in my backyard. I looked for places in SoCal for star gazing, and decided to drive up to a small hill on the Pacific Coast which would offer us a good view and was relatively low on light pollution. I set an alarm for 2 am, and the plan was to wake up at night, drive over and watch the meteor shower from the back of our pick up truck until dawn snuggled in a sleeping bag, and hopefully catch a glimpse of the sunrise. Pretty sweet- right?!
Didn’t happen. When I woke up the next morning, bright rays of sun was flooding our bedroom. My husband had turned off the alarm.. “I was too sleepy” he told me. He had knowingly turned the alarm off.. without waking me up! Well, goes without saying that I was pretty mad at him and I made all kinds of threats at him. He compromised by striking a deal that he was never allowed to say no to a meteor shower again- Ever. Fastforward to August 2011 and its time for Persied meteor shower again. . And this time we are going camping to Joshua Tree. The planning was perfect. And it still remains as one of the most remarkable nights of my life.
Lets talk first about why Joshua Tree. So, if you google “best places for stargazing in southern califronia, Joshua tree is kinda high on the search results. Flat desert: no mountain to obscure the view of the sky. It’s in a national park miles away from the cities: so essentially you have a 180 degree of the sky, studded with stars, free of light pollution. A stargazers Mecca! And heck, its Joshua Tree, an amazing place to experience these majestic trees which are a testimonial to the evolution and adaptation of life in extreme environment. Joshua trees grow only at a certain altitude in the SouthWest desert, and are the only trees to be found in that area. To my eye, they look like a cross between a cactus and a palm tree: thorny leaves attached to skinny trunks. They are millions of years old yet barely a few feet tall: they grow extremely slowly in the absence of water and other resources.
With all the planning done and essentials packed, we drove south for maybe 3-4 hrs. The drive was beautiful specially around Palm Springs where giant white wind mills rose against a contrast of the expansive desert and deep blue sky. We arrived at the Park in late afternoon. We had chosen the Jumbo Rocks campground: The signage at the entrance of the campsite indicated that it was full. I was so glad that I had made reservations in advance. Now the Jumbo Rocks are essentially crystallized volcanic magma, which formed as the earth cooled millions of years ago. Interaction with the wind and other elements carved them to their current form. The desert landscape is dotted by huge pink colored boulders which are upto 10-30 feet tall. Its one of the most beautiful campgrounds I have been to. And what was so cool about the campground was that even though it was full to its capacity of 100 campsites, barely anyone was in view, because the huge rocks gave ample privacy. You could hear everyone though.. there was music in the air and you could smell the bbq.
We pitched our tent, started a campfire and grilled some meat. We explored the surrounding boulders and settled for the one with the flattest top.. perfect to lay our sleeping bags. The warm desert wind cooled down and the sky transitioned from a magnificent crimson to total darkness. Gradually the stars appeared and in no time we were blanketed by millions of them..it was a sight to behold. The Milky way was in full view, without the moon to drown out its light, it looked the spine of our galaxy. Holding our universe together, shining down upon us from millions of light years away.
And there it was.. the first meteor. Leaving a bright blaze behind, it shot through the sky and melted in the horizon. The campers cheered. It sounded like the beginning of a very fun night. And then it began, one meteor after the other. lighting up the sky.. I couldn’t keep up with counting anymore and I gradually became lost in the celestial fireworks. I must have made a 100 wishes that night, silently as prayers. I felt a connection between my heart and the cosmos.
Regrettably I didn’t know much about night photography then (the night sky pictures on this blog are random internet searches). But in a way, I feel it was a blessing in disguise. While I love photography, it does seem to take away the opportunity to fully experience the moment.. we get too busy in the act of snapping pictures and aiming for perfection. But that discussion is for another post.
Well, while the Joshua tree stargazing trip to see the Perseids was my first meteor shower experience, it certainly wasn’t the last. I have seen meteor showers from a ferry in the Atlantic Ocean, from a hot tub in a state forest in the winter sorrounded by snow, attended star parties in Pittsburgh, or from my hospital rooftop- it hasnt stopped, and the dearest husband has kept his word thus far. I recently saw the Milky way from Mauna Kea in Hawaii from 12K feet and it was mind blowing. I do have another camping trip lined up in April this year to see the Lyrids at the Cherry Spring State Park, which is rated as having one of the darkest night skies in North America. I am learning to shoot in the dark, So stay tuned folks- hopefully I will capture that moment to share it with you all!