Looking At The Stars In Austin

It’s a long trip from Alaska to Austin, Texas, but my childhood friend had finally arrived. She had taken a ferry to Seattle and from there, she had purchased a car for a few hundred dollars and embarked on a swift summer swoop to the south. She and two friends she picked up along the way, one of which was a mutual hometown friend, pulled up beside my house one steamy August afternoon wearing only swimsuits, soaked in sweat and desperate for a shower. The car she purchased in Seattle didn’t have air conditioning. Austin saw over 70 consecutive days of 100+ degree weather and she happened to arrive during that scorching window.My house in Austin had been built in 1910 and without any insulation beneath the old floors we could see the sunbeams showering the crawlspace through the cracks in the wood flooring. The walls let the ants in, the closed windows let the breeze in, and nothing could keep the heat out. We kept the air conditioner on full-blast at all times as a desperate combative measure, but the house never cooled below 82 degrees. I welcomed them and we walked through the gravel driveway leading to my home, as I offered apologetic warnings all the way. It was reprieve they were seeking and I knew they would find it in my home, but only moderately so. I chided them for visiting Austin in August. Once the guests had showered and returned to a relatively more natural body temperature, we embarked on a night of showing them around Austin.

After dining at the food trucks on east 6th street and weaving in and out of a few bars, we shared a collective desire to shift gears for the night. My friend expressed interest in seeing the stars in Austin; she wanted to go to where we could see them the best, somewhere out in the country. You can see the stars from Austin’s city limits of course – the city isn’t yet too illuminated for that. But when you drive beyond Austin and into the barren Texan rural landscape, the night sky opens wide; it becomes the mouth of the universe, baring its starry teeth and mysterious surrounding dark matter. It’s the kind of mesmerizing scenery you can get lost in. It’s the kind of escape from which you don’t always feel a need to return. It’s dangerous like that.

We drove east down Martin Luther King boulevard without a specific destination in mind. All semblance of civilization grew distant behind us and the road was nearly invisible ahead, swallowed by the tar-thick blackness. We drove for over an hour, listening to Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major. It was already well after midnight when we spontaneously turned left and followed a dirt road around its curve, which led us to an unknown paved road. We parked the car on the side of the road and got out.

When we turned off the music, the silence had a robust presence, thoroughly pronounced in each rest I’d normally expect to be occupied by sound. My friend lay down in the middle of the street, writhing on the hot pavement in gratitude beneath the vision above. I sprawled out on the roof of my van. We stared up toward a heavy sky that seemed ready to collapse. The dark further illuminated the light specs and we were dizzy under the hypnosis of it all until the silence broke. Coyote howls cracked and screeched in what seemed like a furious brawl, an early morning rampage. They sounded close. I envisioned them finding us all out there, lying on the street and the car like carcasses awaiting consumption. We conceded to the anxiety and retreated to the car, eventually finding our way back to the dirt road and then the main drag back into Austin, where we were so far from those stars; so far from Alaska.

Seeing Stars Outside Cities