Scenes from quarantine – Day 127:
Family traditions are weird. Ask about a favorite recipe or a favorite activity that has always been important to your family and you’re likely to find that someone in the family did it once, somebody else liked it and asked to do it again, and suddenly it’s a family tradition. At this point, I don’t think the kids would feel like it was really Christmas if we didn’t have homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast and the Star Wars Christmas Album playing softly in the background. And, apparently, we’ve accidentally done the same with astronomy. If mom wakes you up once in the middle of the night to see the bright red moon and whispers excitedly that it’s a total lunar eclipse, it’s kind of weird. Half a dozen baffling late-night or mid-day excursions to see meteor showers, solar eclipses (partial, then total), the transit of Venus across the sun, or planetary conjunctions, well, eventually it must be a family tradition, since there’s no other way to make sense of it.
Our biggest astronomy excursion was three years ago, when a total solar eclipse swept across most of the United States for the first time in most Americans’ lifetimes. In Los Angeles, the moon obscured around 70% of the face of the sun, which meant the light was a little dimmer and made crescent-shaped reflections when the sunlight fell through the trees. The difference between the sun being 99% obscured and 100% obscured is literally night and day, so we decided far too late to make the almost thousand mile road trip to the middle of Oregon, crashed on friends’ couches, and enjoyed just over a minute of perfect twilight in the middle of the day , before packing up and driving almost a thousand miles back home again.
After that grand adventure, it was absolutely no surprise to the children when we observed that we were never going to be able to see the NEOWISE comet from Culver City and suggested we break quarantine for the first time since early March to drive to Joshua Tree National Park in the hopes that we could spot a large chunk of dirty ice flying through the sky. In some ways, due to the pandemic, planning the three hour (one way) drive was more challenging than planning the trip to Oregon. Three years ago we mostly hopped in the car determined to make our best effort to get there and not be too disappointed if we could not. None of us had seen a total eclipse before, so we at least took comfort that if we missed it, we wouldn’t really know what we were missing. For the comet, however, we knew we needed to leave at a very particular time (so we could see the comet once it was dark enough for it to be visible and before it set for the night), had no idea what to expect for traffic, weren’t certain how to feed ourselves dinner since we couldn’t just stop in at one of the thousands of restaurants along the way, couldn’t stop for potty breaks, worried about carsickness, worried about running out of battery capacity as we headed into the literal middle-of-nowhere. We knew, however, that we needed this. We needed to get out of the house, we needed an adventure, we needed to see that the universe really is larger and more spectacular than we tend to think about in our very fancy 21st century caves.
We packed a lot of snacks, water bottles, toilet paper, and sanitizing wipes, along with as many binoculars as we could get our hands on. We put the pets away and Pompey, recognizing the pattern of us packing to leave, flopped in his cage unsolicited, eager for a few hours of solitary peace. None of us had been more than five miles from home in weeks and yes, at least three of us were fairly immediately carsick. While the roads feel busy, traffic still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels as we smoothly headed into and back out of downtown Los Angeles and only slowed down once due to construction on the eastern side of the county. We passed all the familiar landmarks that we would have normally seen in the spring, going to rehearsals and then performances at the Renaissance Faire. The wildflowers on the giant hill had long ago faded and only dry, yellow-brown grass remained. We passed by San Dimas and didn’t stop at the Circle K since we knew there’s a moratorium on time travelers stopping in the year 2020 anyway. The strangest part of our drive was heading into Indio, where field after field was filled with electric-generating windmills of all sizes, shapes, and conditions. Most spun steadily. A few were stopped. A couple even were broken, with giant blades laying on the ground at their base. The entire head of one windmill was snapped off and none of us could figure out what giant force could do that.
In Indio we joined the long line at the In-N-Out for takeout burgers, our second choice since the Ruby’s Diners in the area were all still closed (Kevin had already called each one and confirmed), then took our burgers and shakes over to the Supercharger and scarfed them down as Oliver (of course our car has a name) scarfed down electrons to make the drive into the darkness.
From Indio it was about a half an hour drive to the absolute middle of the park, along a divided highway bustling with large trucks. We were driving to the east and the comet is in the northwestern part of the night sky so I craned my head from the passenger seat to try to look out the side back of the car and told Middle Child that she had the best chance of seeing the comet. “Look for a low star that has a weird smudge on one side. That’s the tail.” Nothing, nothing, nothing, and then she said, “I think I see it.” A pause. “Yeah, that’s definitely a tail!” We turned onto the road into the park and as it twisted and turned, she continued to update us on its constant location. Eventually Oldest and Youngest could see it too but even with the Big Dipper clearly visible through the windshield, the car dashboard threw enough light onto the glass that neither Kevin nor I could be certain that what she saw was a comet and not wishful thinking. Periodically, we saw cars pulled to the side of the road, other families clustered outside, on blankets or in camp chairs. Nobody seemed to be staring the the same direction as anyone else. Finally, when we reached the middle of the park and were as absolutely far away from the bright lights of Los Angeles, and Palm Springs, and Indio as we could possibly get, we turned onto a dirt road and drove along until we found a wide patch, parked the car, and stepped outside.
“My god, it’s full of stars!” The ground, the car, and even each other were all swallowed up in darkness, but above us the celestial sphere stretched from horizon to horizon, as glorious and transfixing as the Sistine Chapel. A thick, dappled belt of lights cut across almost (but not quite) exactly the center, our galaxy reaching out to catch us up in its warm embrace. To the east, Jupiter and Saturn shined brightly and to the northwest, the Big Dipper hung in stately fashion, pointing faithful to Polaris, the North Star. Youngest asked us to point out the Little Dipper and unlike home, where there is almost nothing to see, here there were too many stars in the northernmost part of the heavens to say which ones were officially part of the bejeweled Little Bear. Beneath the Big Dipper, just as Middle Child had said, hung one singularly smudgy star, pointed at the earth and shining with a cold, blue light.
Oldest immediately stood to the west, beneath NEOWISE to our view and yelled “It’s too late! The comet is already here!”, successfully completing the Avatar (The Last Airbender) joke that he had begun three years ago in Oregon. That show really does have an astonishing amount of astronomy in it. I grabbed the camera and tripod and discovered I was missing the critical piece to put the two together as the rest of the family unpacked all the binoculars. After making a couple lame attempts to take pictures of the stars, as the children and Kevin gazed at the comet we had driven so far to see, I showed everyone how to find the ecliptic, so-called because it is the path through the sky in which eclipses happen although the bigger point here is that it is the path that the sun, moon, and all the planets make through the sky as they rise and set each day. When you orient yourself in the daylight, finding east by where the sun rises and west by where it sets, you are finding the ecliptic, and when you lack the sun, you can identify east and west by where the moon rises and sets, and if even that is not visible (as it was not tonight), then there are always planets strewn across heavens more like scattered pearls than breadcrumbs to trace out this critical heavenly landmark. All of this can be difficult in the smoggy city with streetlight scattering through the air but out here in Joshua Tree, everything was so vivid and so close that it was easier to find these landmarks, (and the North Star) than it even is to read the compass rose on a map.
We spent about an hour looking between the comet, the galaxy, and the planets, and all trying to catch sight of a shooting star. As we are just entering the Perseid meteor cloud, this was easy to do and everyone saw some remarkable streaks of light across the sky. I pulled out my phone to bring up the Star Finder app, which we used to determine that Mars was just at the horizon and Venus below our feet with the Sun. We also found the constellations of our own zodiac signs and debated endlessly whether one configuration of stars overhead was Orion (it wasn’t). At one point, a bat fluttered over our heads and generated a considerable amount of excitement. While we could see the comet clearly with the naked eye, it was through the binoculars that it was really spectacular, a pinpoint of icy light with a broad sweep trailing behind like a white peacock. As the Earth’s rotation inevitably pulled it toward the horizon it grew dimmer and dimmer and finally, when we could see it no longer it was time to go.
The drive home was dark, quiet, and uneventful, except for an extraordinary amount of construction along one stretch of highway. We got home around 3 in the morning and tumbled into bed. In the morning, Littlest One looked up the kind of bat we’d seen and determined it was (vegetarian) spotted bat and endangered, so she was happy to see it out in its glorious native habitat foraging for food. I looked through the pictures I’d taken. A dozen unremarkable black squares. I opened the settings and fidgeted with them. A few shaky, abstract star trails, and one utter surprise. The image is noisy and grainy, the horizon blurred but unmistakeable. Four bright splotches, the lower rightmost faintly yellow, together recognizable as the Big Dipper. Beneath that, one smudgy star pointed toward the ground. NEOWISE, captured.