Shooting Stars

Editor’s note: This essay was published on an earlier incarnation of this site, but didn’t make the transition for some reason. I’ve re-created it here, but I don’t recall exactly when it was published — aside from “Nov. 1998.” — RTO

Beauty isn’t skin deep

Nov. 1998.

Sometimes the best things in life are those that are inexpensive and simple. When you consider it, what is more worthwhile, a walk in the park with the sun setting behind the mountains or seeing what dribble television network officials smear across your boob tube screen.

I saw one of the most beautiful things last month when I drove for 45 minutes up into the mountains of San Diego County to witness the Leonid meteor shower. I had been disappointed that I had never seen a meteor shower in person. My love of space is deep — springing forth from tomes of science fiction and the stories of real space exploration. In the fourth grade, I was proud member of the Young Astronauts club. In the tenth grade, I brought a viewer to witness the last total solar eclipse in North America during my lunch period. To witness a meteor storm would be terrific.

My evening got off to a late start — I was doing some late research in the library. It was after midnight when I left campus to join some friends that had already left.

I was worried about the weather. Forecasts said that the viewing in Southern California would be poor. As I approached the foothills I grew worried — an inland fog had settled in. If the fog stayed, there would be no way of seeing the showers. My fears were unfounded as my car broke through the fog as we ascended the hills and I could see the stars with a clarity that I could never see in the city. At long last, I finally reached the peak of the hillside.

I got off the interstate and proceeded to drive along the winding road that lead to the peak of the mountain. I was astounded by how many people were in the turnouts of the road — there seemed to be dozens of cars. I entered the Cleveland National Forest and saw another surprise — there are honest-to-God forests in San Diego County. Tall, glorious trees lined along the road with their leaves scattered in my path. I could pretend for an instant that I was driving on a backroad in Georgia, Utah or Colorado.

Not long after my discover of trees, I saw my first meteor. The meteor blazed across the sky right above the road that I was driving on. It looked very much like brilliant fireworks streaming in the sky. I couldn’t wait to pull off of the road to see more. My search for my friends was in vain, I kept driving until I realized that I had gone too far. I turned back and made a hasty dash back towards the interstate so that I could view the peak of the show. All the while I could catch glimpses of the meteors streaming across the sky. One meteor seemed to race alongside of my car.

Before long, I had reached the largest turnout. I pulled in, careful to turn off my headlights so that I wouldn’t disturb the viewing of those that had been there for hours. I got out of my car so that I could take in a total view of the night sky. Almost immediately, I realized that my T-shirt and jean shorts were going to do little to keep the cold away from me. It was really cold, but I soon grew accustomed to the mountainous climes.

At first I wandered around alone gazing at the black sky set afire with the light of a trillion stars. The shooting stars would speed through the sky every thirty seconds. Even though each individual meteor was a different size, they all looked like miniature comets spending their last instant suspended in the air. As I stood in the crisp cool mountain air, I craned my neck so that I could scan the sky. More than once I wished that I could see the entire expanse of the sky, but the view I had was enough. I could see the vast expanse of the Milky Way Galaxy spread across the sky. I could see the Big Dipper hiding behind the summit of the mountain and the moon hanging high.

Eventually, I came around to some people trying to take photographs of the night sky. The people I talked to were very polite, probably because everyone that spent the night in the mountains had something in common — they were crazy enough to be awake at two in the morning to see a meteor storm. While I was talking to these people, I saw the greatest meteor of the evening. The meteor created a flash that made everyone pause. The meteor skipped across the sky flaring like strobe light and left a brilliant light path in its wake. I could almost hear the sound of the meteor as it crashed into the atmosphere. I could hear the people near their cars ooh, aah and cheer as if this were similar to a baseball game in a stadium. The people with the cameras quickly shifted to try and catch a glimpse of the now-departed rock. Despite all of the fun, I had to tear myself away — I needed to go back to school so that I could work early that morning.

Even though I was completely satisfied with the show that morning, there was still one more spectacle in store. I was driving home on Interstate 5 from UCSD that Friday night, I could see one last shooting star fire through the sky pushing past the thick blanket of cold impersonal city lights. As I drove on, I quietly whispered aloud the old children’s wishing poem “I wish I may, I wish I might, See the first star in the sky tonight…” When I reached the wishing part of the poem, I trailed off into silence with a sigh. I thought of all my dreams and wishes and yet not resolving to choose merely one for that long-gone shooting star.