The Language of Stars

Boulders and stars, Triassic, UT.

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.

Triassic: the land that time forgot

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.

Communing with the campfire

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.”

Basic view of the Milky Way

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.

Farewell, Summer Weekend. Adieu.

 

Scarcity can create value, any economist will tell you, and so it is with weekends. The working stiff must wedge into two days all the daydreams (and, alas, the chores and obligations, too) accumulated in the course of the workweek. Thus, each weekend hour is heavy with possibility, dense and precious as a gold doubloon. And of all the year’s weekends, the summer weekend, with its broad swaths of daylight and its jovial warmth, is perhaps the most precious of all. It beckons us to backyard cookouts, jaunts into the high mountains or wind-combed beaches.

But take note! As you read this, there remains but one last weekend to the year’s warmest season. In the northern hemisphere, the astronomical summer meets its end on Friday, the 21st of September. As the sun sets on this final sunny summer Sunday, who could but pine for more days of freedom? ‘Tis understandable, but as one wise old wanderer once scribbled in his leather-bound journals, “Waste not your precious minutes lamenting the weekend’s brief respite! Instead, cherish what time ye do have.”

With that in mind, I’ve here compiled a much-abridged inventory of those things that make me impatient for the next weekend before this one be yet over. I’d much appreciate it if you’d add to this list with your own favorite summer weekend things in the comments below.

  1. Ignoring your alarm clock, set for the typical and ungodly workday hour, and sinking back into sleep until sunlight fills your room.
  2. Having the time to take your dog for a long walk to an open field and play fetch; the sight of your dog’s tongue lolling out of his mouth, flicking slobber pearls onto the dry earth; satisfaction as he flops onto the cool grass in the shade of a tree.
  3. The long breakfast. Or even brunch.
  4. An unhurried tie-in for the first climb of the morning, complimented by the smell of chalk, pine, sun-warmed lichen on stone.
  5. The midday nap in the shade, preferably in a hammock or in the grass with your head propped on a pack.
  6. A beer chilled in a cold stream after a long day on the rocks, or perhaps a late-night whisky, neat, imbibed out-of-doors and containing, faintly reflected, the 300 billion (give or take) stars of the Milky Way.
  7. Grillin’.
  8. Tomatoes from the garden, sun-warm.
  9. Spending a whole afternoon reading that book that’s been loitering on the bedstand.
  10. Orange mocha Frappuccino™!
  11. Just before leaving for a weekend trip, you check to see that the front door is locked one last time. Then, that moment when you turn towards your car and see your travelin’ companion in the passenger seat, shades on, head nodding rhythmically to this song.
  12. Storm clouds billowing up into their customary anvil shape, as if taking a deep breath to blow slanting rain and lightning bolts down onto the earth. Also, the alien yellow-green light that precedes these storms.
  13. Meandering campfire discussions with friends, punctuated by the wood’s fiery crackle, your faces lit from below.
  14. Flip flops.
  15. Sitting down to work on a piece of writing in the afternoon and not lifting your head until your wife turns on the light in the now-dark room and gently asks, “Will you be ready to eat, soon? It’s getting late…