By Mark Gauert
City & Shore Magazine
A young friend who grew up in a country far from here, in a place glowing with city light at night, had never been able to see the Milky Way.
Growing up, she’d only been able to see the brightest lights in the sky at night. The moon, Venus – maybe Sirius, the brightest star, if she squinted. But nothing much beyond that. Nothing like the Milky Way, the dazzling river of starlight she’d read about – but never seen.
And it made her sad. It was one of her only regrets, growing up in a place glowing with city light at night.
I told her I’d seen the Milky Way from here only once myself, on the night after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. That storm knocked out almost all of the power, leaving us in a deep darkness we never experience on typical nights.
After the storm had passed, after I was sure everybody was safe, I set up a camp stove in the backyard, took one of the frozen pizzas thawing in the powerless house, and cooked dinner for my family under the dazzling wonder my friend had always dreamed of seeing.
“You saw it here?” she said.
“I did,” I said. “I’d never want to go through anything like Wilma just to see it again. But it was beautiful.”
“Beautiful?” she said.
“I’ll never forget it.”
Like the memory of frozen pizza on a camp stove in the backyard with my family in the starlit darkness after Wilma.
I told her we could try seeing the Milky Way again. That maybe the lights weren’t as bright here as they were in her home country. That maybe we could look for a place inland, away from the lights smudging our skies along the coast.
So one afternoon near sundown we drove to Everglades National Park, down State Highway 9336 in the sawgrass flats between the entrance gate and the Flamingo marina on Florida Bay. It was dark by the time we got there, off the road near Nine Mile Pond. Dark enough to see stars beginning to reflect on the black water. Dark enough to see the tail of the comet everybody had been talking about on the news. Dark enough to see way more stars than she’d ever been able to see back home.
But also way more mosquitoes. So many, we were ready to go back almost as soon as we got there – even if it meant not seeing the Milky Way beginning to shine out of the darkness.
“Oh!” she said, slapping at the mosquitoes. “I think some are in the car!’’
“Just roll down the window,” I said, speeding up, “we’ll blow ’em out.”
That was the end of our stargazing. At least in South Florida.
Months later, we were with her again on a family trip to New Mexico. I grew up there – and I told her I’d seen the Milky Way many times on camping trips with the Boy Scouts on the dark plains and mesas above the Rio Grande.
We were on the road to Albuquerque near sunset after a day in Santa Fe, when I saw an exit to La Cienega – “the swamp” – up ahead. It was a place I’d known from my camping days.
It was dark by the time we got there, down State Highway 548 in the piñon scrub between the interstate and the village of La Cienega. We pulled onto the shoulder, let our eyes adjust to the darkness – and saw all of what you see in this photo, which she remembered to shoot with her camera on a tripod after she’d stopped jumping up and down.
“I see it, I see!” she giggled. “It’s there! It’s really there!”
I’ll never forget that night, either. Never forget her happiness, seeing a wonder that had been there all along.
And hoped our days would always be filled with such wonders. Which surely are all around us, even in the darkest night.
Photo: The Milky Way over La Cienega, N.M., photographed by Qing Du.