If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
This Friday I turned 34. Other than that fact that the first and second digits are consecutive, it was not a particularly significant birthday. Rather than throw a party in honor of the occasion, Kristin and I packed our trusty Honda Element and headed south and east of Salt Lake City, to a bouldering spot called Triassic, which feels every bit as prehistoric as the name would imply.
Located between the rural town of Elmo (pop. 368) and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, site of “the densest concentration of Jurassic-aged dinosaur bones ever found,” Triassic is a desert sandstone bouldering area comprised of a few caches of rock in what was once an ancient seabed. The feeling one gets in this desolately beautiful spot is one of timelessness, as if a herd of Allosaurus fragilis might at any moment come lumbering over the crest of a hill.
Although the environs at first appear lifeless, an attentive eye will pick out the movement of many a creature — little rock-crawling lizards, chipmunks, jack rabbits, and even antelope — all camouflaged in the dusty tones of the landscape. Humans tend to be the least represented creatures in Triassic. Which is half the reason why Kristin and I chose the spot in the first place. We went there to climb, but also to spend the night isolated in a more wild setting, enjoy a celebratory drink in front of a camp fire, and, among my favorite pastimes in nature, stargaze.
That night, the stars were out in their full regalia. By 11pm, the sun was long gone, the moon had not yet crested the horizon, and all the constellations were razor-sharp and twinkling. Through the middle of the sky was a broad swath of diffuse light, the combined glow of billions of stars forming the spiral-armed Milky Way, seen from on edge like a cosmic Frisbee hurtling towards us.
Dinosaur fossils, the pictographs of ancient civilizations, great geologic landscapes like the Grand Canyon or the Himalaya, the open ocean — all of these are magical to behold, but nothing puts a person in his or her tiny, insignificant place quite like a full-blown sky full of stars, viewed on a clear cold desert night.
To each observer, the vast starscape becomes a celestial Rorschach test. What we see in the unfathomable vastness is a testament to what our hearts most want to see. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “How is it they live in such harmony the billions of stars – when most men can barely go a minute without declaring war in their minds about someone they know.” To him, stars were an example from God of how humans can better carry out their lives. Marcus Aurelius saw them as exemplary of a realm above and beyond petty human concerns: “Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.” Van Gogh said simply “The sight of the stars makes me dream.”
To me, the stars serve as proof that we’re the center of nothing in particular, and that our actions leave not a scratch on the broad side of the universe. In the Zen tradition, they remind me to take “serious” things more lightly, and “small” things more seriously, and remember that our only legacy is the example we set in this life, and our ultimate return to the elemental star dust of which we’re made.
The next morning when we woke, the stars had once again disappeared behind the blue veil of the sky. We approached the day with no particular goal in mind. Alone, in the desert, with some water and a few crash pads, we set off walking to see what we could see. But the stars had left their faint impression in our minds and, at least for a little while, we would follow their example.