I grew up in the bright red blobby area in the light pollution map below. Deep in the red is a tiny state called New Jersey sandwiched between New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore. There's some stretches of quiet, open places- but mostly its become a giant suburb of those 3 big cities. And so, as a 10 yr old in the family backyard looking up at the stars, if I saw the Big Dipper, Orion and about 20 other stars in the sky- that was a big starry night! Saying it now, I cringe, but that was my normal night view; but, I loved staying out looking at the stars.

As a teenager, I would rally the friends to jump in a car and drive to the darkest field in the area and lay on the hood, listening to the radio, talking about our ideas of the future adult lives all the while just staring up at the blinking night sky. Even the meager view of about 30 stars still made me stare and wonder what is up beyond us. It was the place I went to dream and let my mind chew over ideas. One night in Australia would eventually shatter this concept of what a starry night is.

I was backpacking with a friend, traveling south down the Australian coast. Tired of the ocean, we went inland, up onto the Atherton Tableland plateau. There was a lookout on the road map, so with no set plans, we went there for lunch. The viewpoint looks like this:

The view was so stunning we stayed for dinner. The sunset was so incredible, we pitched the tent in the parking lot looking forward to sunrise. I woke up in the middle of the night, nature calling and found the unofficial bathroom on the edge of the forest. Walking back to the tent in the dark, I happened to look up, and even with eyes foggy from sleep what I saw nearly knocked my NJ 20yr old self over. Stars. Stars. And more stars. Everywhere! Horizon to horizon were countless stars. I stood, mouth agape, shoulders drooping from a body paralysis, shocked into silence.... no one ever told me it could be like this... no one ever told me it is supposed to be like this.

Then, one of the most paradigm shifting moments of my life happened- I saw a weird, glowing cloud hanging static in the sky. It was weird because the wind was blowing hard, so it seemed impossible for it to not move at all. It was weird because it was glowing. As evident from our road map, our driving around, and lack of any lights on the horizon- there was no city to be casting lights up against clouds. So, here was a cloud not moving in high winds, glowing from a non existent light source. My NJ formed brain stared.... hard. The chill of the evening disappeared, and I stood there, only wearing boxers, absolutely transfixed by this glowing cloud.. I figured with enough time it had to move eventually in the gusting wind, but it didn't. And then I began to get unnerved. Where are we? What is going wrong in this foreign place? This glowing thing shouldn't be in the sky. I felt the beginning of fear as my logic couldn't put a label on the major happening above me.

The next grasp of a label by my brain was in the spiritual direction. I seriously wondered if I was seeing some apparition of the spirit world. ".....God?..." I asked internally. With no answer and still no moving of the cloud, I walked over to the picnic table and sprawled out on it, mesmerized, staring up. The feelings I felt laying there was too much to stay still, so I was up pacing the gravel parking lot just staring up trying to figure out what I was seeing.

And then- like a clap of lightning- my brain found the piece of information to tie it all together. Somewhere in some long forgotten school science lesson, "Milky Way" rocketed to my mind and I literally stumbled back realizing what I was seeing.... the rest of the Universe! No thoughts raced through my head, I was literally numb with the shock of discovering this could all be seen with my eyes. A galaxy so dense with planets and stars it makes a cloud... the Milky Way.... stars and stars and stars and stars and stars and...the Milky Way... I stumbled back to the picnic table, and resumed my previous position sprawled out looking up. And I laid there for an hour or so just trying to see it all. This kid from New Jersey was forever changed in that night.

After that, seeing the stars became a passionate side priority of my international backpacking. In Guatemala, I got a view of a deep sky on a black sand beach with Pacific Ocean waves crashing in the dark. In Scottish Highlands, two nights in fifteen were clear, where I sat outside my cheap hostel backyard mouth agape at the starry view. In Austria, I was bummed to discover giant mountains didn't mean an escape from light pollution. On the Italian island of Sardinia, I scootered to the center where the Milky Way reappeared, not as strong as the first night in Australia, but it was good to see this old friend again. I told my friends back home, wrote about it in emails, passionately talked about it over drinks- but... no one really got it. They said, "cool" or "wow, I'd like to see that" but, it was simple reaction not any real conviction. My words weren't able to convey the experiences I was discovering in these far flung places. I was frustrated to so deeply know this reality of what is really above us and the inability to communicate it.

Then, while working in Guam as a Navy contractor, our team of welders got to go out to sea with the ship we were working on so we could finish our work on time. As civilians, we were given freedom to go walk above deck at night, so after a couple hours of boring card games I went up topside to get fresh air. It was a clear, moonless night, and fifty miles out to sea off the island of Guam in the vast South Pacific Ocean- I found the night sky view I'd been chasing. The Milky Way from Australia again! I ran back down to my friends playing cards and told them they have to see the stars. I was babbling like a kid that had seen Santa up in the sky. The older welders rolled their eyes and I clamored that they had to come up, if one favor I could demand it was to see this view of the stars. They put the cards down and shuffled way too slowly for me up the stairs to the top deck. And then they saw it.

These rough dock workers, contractors for the Navy that cursed worse than the sailors and told jokes with a goal to see who could be more crude- they all froze, silenty staring up, speechless. Exploding with excitement I rambled on with, "See! I told you! It's crazy! Have you ever seen this?!....." and then I realized they were each having that numbed, mute shock moment I had the first time in Australia. Smiling, I shut up and gave them the time and space to take it all in. Eventually, we each found a piece of deck to lay down on and quietly told stories of moments where we'd seen beauty in nature, felt awe in life, and even told personal stories that had never come out before. The cards were forgotten and the whole team stayed up there laying out under the stars for hours. With work starting at 5:30am that morning, we eventually decided some sleep was necessary and on the walk back inside under the red hallway lights, a couple of the guys smiled with teary eyes as they walked to their rooms.

As the next years went by I continued to chase the starry night experiences, but I eased off of 'preaching' about the stars as my own opportunities in these far away places was replaced by resuming work and life back in New Jersey- but, deep down- the draw to see the night sky never went away.

Next week I'll finish off the story of how I discovered the ability to take pictures of the stars. Til then, here's a video from this summer I made from a week of showing a high school summer camp how to take pictures of the stars. I felt all the same joy showing them as I did pushing that group of old welders up the stairs on the Navy ship :-)

Make Me Dream from Uncage the Soul Productions on Vimeo.


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