When, how, and why I began my interest in astronomy

by Victor Davis

As a general rule, I tend to value earned experiences more than accidental ones. That’s a pretty common view, it seems to me. The exhilaration of a summit view is heightened by appreciating the effort it took to get there. The view from a parking lot is less sublime than the vista from an untrammeled vantage point miles from the trailhead and reached by scrabbling uphill across fields of talus and scree. My car climbed Mount Washington (though I never collected the ubiquitous bumper sticker), but it’s the experience of hiking the Franconia Ridge that I particularly remember. These events took place, as you might imagine, many years ago when I was more agile and before my heart muscle had to be re-plumbed. 

Among these miniature adventures was a cross-country car trip nearly 50 years ago. I took off with a friend in his beat-up Chevrolet on a 6-week tour from our homes in Ohio to the West Coast and back. We had little agenda beyond spending a few weeks sponging off relatives; his in Montana and mine in northern California.  We subsisted mainly on a diet of cheeseburgers and french fried mushrooms, an unfortunate addiction that led more or less directly to my re-plumbing experience mentioned earlier.

I no longer remember the sequence of our travels, but at some point we ended up, as many tourists do, at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Then as now, the visitors’ overlooks swarmed with people (also black flies), and though only about one percent of canyon visitors expend the effort to hike its trails, my friend and I decided to be among the enlightened few to “walk” down to the Colorado River and back. In one day. At midday in August. Signs warned of the foolhardiness of expecting to accomplish what seemed a modest 16-mile stroll (with a 4,400 foot change in elevation) in a single day and without proper preparation. No matter; we knew better than the ignorant rabble who turned back at the first rest area that it was important to wear long pants and to stay hydrated. We filled our one-quart water containers to the very top, and headed off down the Bright Angel Trail. The scenery was stunning, each of many switchbacks bringing into view a landscape different from the last, and just as beautiful. We were pretty baked by the time we got to the river, but that made its cold water that much more appealing. We played along the river for a few hours, splashing around and clambering over two-billion-year-old rocks. Then, with an exuberance and confidence available only to the profoundly ignorant, we headed back up the trail. 

Frolicking overlong at the river had the unintended benefit of sparing us the worst heat of the day. Nevertheless, the uphill climb was brutal. And nightfall came unbelievably quickly. Did I mention that our water supply was woefully inadequate? So there you have it: two inexperienced, barely-fit hikers, exhausted and dehydrated, hiking a steep and precarious trail in the dark.  At some point, and many details are mercifully lost to memory, we virtually collapsed along the trail. Lying flat on the ground, I looked up at the sky.

I’d never –and I mean NEVER – seen anything like it. I briefly entertained the idea that I was hallucinating. Stars shone everywhere. A few bright planets dazzled. There was this amazing gauzy band spanning the sky from one canyon rim to the other. What the heck was that? Every minute or so, a meteor streaked across the sky. A Perseid? It was all so beautiful, so dynamic, that I couldn’t stop watching. It was unforgettable, a sight I’ve tried to recapture, usually with disappointing results. What would I have to give up to enjoy such a view from where I live? That’s a pretty slippery slope. 

In subsequent years I have gone out of my way to experience astronomical sights and events, and to seek the company of others whose enthusiasm and expertise surpass my own. These efforts have enriched my life. But, my first experience of a starry night in a dark sky is what got me hooked on astronomy. When the hour gets past 10 pm and the temperature drops below about 50 degrees, remembering the rewarded efforts of these experiences is what gets my butt out of its comfy chair.

high-contrast photo of my nutty friend climbing around the bottom of the Grand Canyon

high-contrast photo of my nutty friend climbing around the bottom of the Grand Canyon

This entry was posted in May 2020, Sidereal Times and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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