Secret Shame: Short-sighted stargazing leaves me adrift in stellar sea

Once upon a time, I was a member of the Young Astronauts. That’s not the secret shame — my membership in this esteemed club and lifelong fascination with space merely provides some background for my tale.
One of the coolest things about camping in the mountains is the breathtaking views of the night sky. The deep darkness provided a suitable canvas for the cacophony of coldly glimmering stars and the faint band of the Milky Way.
There was even the blaze of an occasional shooting star. It was a wonderful sight.
There was one downside wherein my secret shame resides — I couldn’t recognize any of the constellations. While I’ve never been good about picking out the more obscure formations, I always thought I could spot Orion or the Dippers.
I felt lost amid this stellar sea. It was like looking at a map without labels or a legend. The navigational points I had learned over the years had sadly escaped me.
I looked toward the north to find the Big Dipper and hopefully follow it to the northern star of Polaris.
No joy — I couldn’t see anything that I recognized. I was walking through the darkened campground with a friend who was having similar difficulties.
We had several theories about why the night sky was so strange to us. The massive black shadow of Eureka Peak loomed more than 2,000 feet over the campsite. The mountain was northwest of the campgrounds and may have obscured a good part of the sky.
What the mountain didn’t obscure, the cover of tall pines did. Gazing through the tree canopy was sometimes like peering through a celestial porthole.
In the days and nights upon returning to Chico, my consternation at myself grew as I continued to try to spot the basic star patterns. After staring up in the sky for about 10 minutes, I couldn’t pick much out. I thought I spotted Cassiopeia, but I wasn’t sure.
Determined not to let this get me down, I took one more look at the night sky. Finally a lightbulb went off as I peered into the dark. There was relief as I could spot at least a couple of constellations.
The Big Dipper scooped close to the horizon, providing credibility to my theory that I couldn’t see this constellation in the mountains because of the tree cover or hills.
While I’m glad that I’m not going senile and forgetting what I learned about the stars, I think a refresher or two may be in order. Thankfully, the mountains are close by and there’s an open-air observatory at Bidwell Park.

You’ve got to change your ‘big city’ ways

Frazier CreekComplaining about the ill effects and encroachment of large cities on smaller communities is a common pastime. In this area, it seems that people in rural Butte County complain about Chico and Chicoans complain about the Bay Area.

If you go back far enough, the rural Romans would knock Rome, saying that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be and why is our empire named after this city anyway?

I saw a bit of this disdain towards cities during a trip to Plumas-Eureka State Park. We listened to a few minutes of the 50th anniversary celebration of the park. Here’s what colleague Heather Hacking wrote about it:

Plus, they had a big table set up with birthday cake, for which we felt
obligated to hear a speech by an area supervisor about how visitors are
welcome to the area but discouraged from “bringing their big-city ways.”

First, let me say that the birthday cake was totally worth listening to a few minutes of congratulatory back-patting. There were two sheet cakes — white and chocolate. The white cake was delicious, with layers of some light pink frosting with traces of fruit.

I digress. I found the county supervisor’s comments a little funny because they seemed more like a candidate speech instead of a salute to a thriving state park. I don’t think he would be a big fan of the curry test.

For the rest of the day, my party poked gentle fun at the comment, mentioning how the backcountry probably didn’t need such newfangled conveniences as horseless carriages, satellite TV or modern medicine (leeches are just fine, thank you).

The thing is, I can understand some of the supervisor’s feelings — there are many undesirable things about big cities, including traffic, crowds, crime, etc. But his short comment also seemed to dismiss the things that make cities worthwhile — culture, diversity, the hum of humanity, opportunities, etc.

In some ways, maintaining and preserving this idyllic realm may be impossible. The supervisor said he wouldn’t mind if people come up to the mountains and put down roots … if they didn’t bring their big city ways with them. However, we bring at least some aspect of this larger civilization with us, no matter how hard we try to escape or transform it.

Looking around the communities the supervisor represents, I could see the encroachment of the “city” — highways, railroads, motor home parks, golf courses, cell phones, manicured lawns, and satellite TV dishes on many homes. There’s a wine bar outside Graeagle and there is a restaurant that wants $36 for surf-and-turf in a town with 70 summer residents.

As much as we would want to keep the city’s troubles at arm’s length, many aspects of civilization follow us like footsteps through snow. Instead of fearing a clash between civilization and nature, perhaps we can seek a more beneficial interchange.

Image: A view of Frazier Creek just upstream of Frazier Falls outside of Graeagle, Calif. on Sat., July 18, 2009. (Ryan Olson photo)