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.

5 Of The World’s Best Places For Viewing The Night Skies

If you grow up in Southern California, school field trips to the Griffith Observatory are practically a requirement. For whatever reason, I always found the Planetarium more frightening than enlightening, especially in the sixth grade, when David Fink threw up on me on the bus ride home.

Despite many youthful camping trips with my family, I also can’t recall ever paying attention to the night skies (possibly because many of these trips were in the cloudy Pacific Northwest). Fast-forward 20-odd years, and to a solo camping trip on Kauai’s North Shore. It was my last night and the rainclouds had finally blown away. I stared up at the starry sky awestruck. It’s the first time l ever really noticed the stars, due to the lack of light and environmental pollution. I’ve been a stargazer ever since, and coincidentally, many of my travels have taken me to some of the world’s best locations for it.

Below, my picks for top-notch night skies, no student chaperone required:

Atacama Desert
, Chile

This stark, Altiplano region in Chile’s far north is the driest desert on earth, as well as home to the some of the clearest night skies on the planet. You don’t need anything (other than perhaps a great camera) to appreciate the stars, but a stargazing tour, offered by various hotels, hostels and outfitters throughout the town of San Pedro de Atacama, is well worth it.

I highly recommend the Astronomy Tour offered by the Alto Atacama Hotel & Spa, located just outside of San Pedro proper. For hotel guests only, this two-year-old program is led by one of the property’s guides, a naturalist and astronomer. The hotel has its own observation deck and a seriously badass telescope; you won’t be disappointed even if stargazing isn’t your thing. In addition to learning the constellations of ancient Quechua myth such as the Llama and Condor, you’ll have incredible views of the Milky Way, and be able to see telescopic images of Sirius and Alpha Centauri with a lens so powerful you can actually see a ring of flame flickering from their surface.

%Gallery-157717%Exmouth, Western Australia
Uluru (aka the former Ayers Rock, which now goes by its Aboriginal name) is considered Australia’s best stargazing, due to its location in exactly the middle of nowhere. In reality, the Outback in general has night skies completely untainted by pollution. But as I’ve discovered after many years of visiting Australia, the only bad places to stargaze are urban areas. The skies are also stellar above remote coastal regions, most notably in Western Australia (which is vast and sparsely populated).

The best skies I’ve seen are in Exmouth, located along the Ningaloo Reef. At Sal Salis, a coastal luxury safari camp, an observation platform and stargazing talk will help you make sense of the Southern sky. Be prepared for striking views of the Milky Way stretching across the horizon, seemingly close enough to touch.

Mauna Kea, Hawaii
In 1991, the year of the Total Solar Eclipse, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the Big Island’s Mauna Kea Observatory – located at the top of the volcano – to watch the sky grow dark mid-morning. I was waiting tables on Maui, so all I noticed was a brief dimming, in conjunction with some of my tables pulling a dine-and-dash. A visit to the volcano, however, will assure you stunning views if you take a Sunset and Stargazing Tour offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Day visitors can hike, and even ski in winter.

Bryce Canyon, Utah
This national park, known for its bizarre rock spires (called “hoodoos”) and twisting red canyons, is spectacular regardless of time of day or season. On moonless nights, however, over 7,500 stars are visible, and park rangers and volunteer astronomers lead Night Sky programs that include multimedia presentations and high-power telescopes; schedules and topics change with the seasons.

Churchill, Manitoba
Located on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, the village of Churchill is famous for three things: polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. Its location beneath the Auroral Oval means the “best and most Northern Lights displays on the planet,” according to Churchill’s website, and you don’t need to sign up for a tour to enjoy the show. Save that for the polar bear viewing.

[Photo credits: Atacama, Frank Budweg; Mauna Kea, Flickr user sambouchard418;Aurora Borealis, Flickr user Bruce Guenter]

Gorgeous time lapse of Australia’s “Southern Lights”

It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to see the Northern Lights, that glorious display of eerie green “smoke” that appears to float above the nighttime sky of some of the furthest northern reaches of our globe. But now I have another sight to add to that list: the Southern Lights. Also know as “Aurora Australis”, it’s the southern hemisphere equivalent of the auroras that occur up north, captured in stunning time-lapse fashion near Melbourne, Australia by photographer Alex Cherney. Give the video above a click and watch as the Milky Way gracefully dances across the southern sky, punctuated by the mesmerizing warm pulses of pink, yellow and orange.

The Acadia Night Sky Festival begins today

Starting today, and running through next Monday, Acadia National Park, located near Bar Harbor Maine, will play host to the third annual Acadia Night Sky Festival. The event, which is designed to celebrate and promote the stunning night skies above the park, will mix live music, art, and science, with a healthy dose of stargazing.

The event is designed to be family friendly, offering plenty of activities that both kids and adults will enjoy. Some of those activities include daily children’s book give-a-ways, photography workshops, lectures, picnics, and more. Tonight there will be boat cruises to take in the night sky while out on the water, and the rest of the weekend includes scheduled “star parties” at various locations around the park, including Cadillac Mountain and Schoodic Peninsula.

The skies above Acadia are described as “the largest expanse of naturally dark sky, east of the Mississippi,” something that is seen as a spectacular natural resource by the organizers of this event. As our urban environments continue to expand, and bring plenty of light pollution with them, fewer and fewer people actually get to experience a night sky in all of its glory. This festival hopes to remind us just how beautiful – and humbling– that view can be.

The Acadia Night Sky Festival comes to a conclusion at dawn on Monday, September 26th, with early risers enjoying a sunrise on Cadillac Summit, as the night sky fittingly gives way to the sun.

And don’t forget, entry into the park is free on Saturday.

Acadia Night Sky Festival scheduled for early September

The second annual Acadia Night Sky Festival is scheduled to take place in Bar Harbor, Maine this September, offering a chance for stargazers to take in the most spectacular views of the night sky along the entire eastern seaboard – from one of the most spectacular national parks in the entire U.S. no less. The event will offer both day and night time activities, with plenty to offer the entire family.

Official activities will get underway on Thursday, September 9th with a panel discussion, photography workshop, and stargazing at the Jackson Laboratory. The festival really gets going on Friday, September 10th however and will continue through the weekend, ending with the sunrise creeping over the 1532 foot tall Cadillac Summit on the morning of Monday, September 13th. In between, you’ll find seminars on understanding our universe, photography exhibitions and classes, picnics, star parties, and much more. Some of the events will be conducted by rangers from Acadia National Park who will offer insights into how to navigate by the stars and what it’s like in the park after the sun goes down.

The festival is used to raise awareness of the increase of light pollution in the U.S. as it is a celebration of the wonderful night skies over Maine, which has the most star filled skies east of the Mississippi River. With urban sprawl continuing to grow, and more urban centers sending light into the heavens, our views of the stars are becoming more and more impeded all the time. The Acadia Night Sky Festival hopes to remind us just how amazing those views above us really are.