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Riding the Milky Way in Tucson

Posted on Aug 26, 2010
Adam Block / Mount Lemmon SkyCenter / University of Arizona

By Deanne Stillman

(Page 2)

A couple of days after I arrived in Tucson, there came a party invitation. The public was invited to the top of Mount Lemmon for a viewing of the annual Perseid showers, a breathtaking display of shooting stars that is not visible to people in urban areas and outlying areas due to light pollution. While I generally brake for sand, I also hit the road for star parties; without hesitation I made the one-hour drive up the winding Catalina Highway through the Coronado National Forest to the Sky Center on top of the mountain. I was told to arrive promptly at 4:30 p.m., lest I miss entry through the observatory gates, so I did not make my customary stops at scenic overlooks—except for one whose call I could not resist. It turned out that this one provided a view of the place where my love affair with the West began long ago—New Mexico.

Delighted with this omen and sending a shout-out to the Land of Enchantment, I continued my journey to the observatory, arriving on time and joining a small party of pilgrims who had gathered outside the gates. There at the summit was a guy with long hair on a purple motorcycle, wearing a Sons of Anarchy T-shirt. I asked him if he worked on the television show of that title and he said that he was in an actual club with that name; I later checked and there is one—its members are military veterans. As we continued chatting, it turned out that we both were fans of the terrestrial star Katey Sagal, the biker mom on the TV show. “Are you here for the protests?” he said upon learning that I lived in California. “People are protesting meteors?” I said, so in the moment that I had forgotten about the turmoil in the lower ethers. “No,” he said, “it’s prop—”  and I immediately knew that he was referring to Arizona’s new immigration policy. “I’m just here for the stars,” I said, and happily shook hands with our host and guide, Adam Block, the noted University of Arizona astronomer who had just arrived to kick off the party.

Opening the gates, Adam led us along a trail to a compound of giant telescopes at an elevation of 9,200 feet, the uppermost point on this “sky island” region of Arizona—one of various forested mountain ranges surrounded by grassland and desert flats across the Sonoran plains. Home to screech owls, bear, and clumping lady bugs that love the mountaintop and gather in droves across the compound, Mount Lemmon was named for botanist Sarah Lemmon, who trekked to the top in 1881 on mules and foot with Native American guides. Several years later, the Indian wars would conclude, with the capture of Geronimo in Douglas, Ariz.; in the Dragoon Mountains to the southeast—also part of the Coronado National Forest—the Apache chief Cochise lies buried, in a secret location. “Why shut me up on a reservation?” Cochise once said. “We will make peace. We will keep it faithfully. But let us go around free as Americans do. Let us go wherever we please.” 

From the rim of Mount Lemmon, with the naked eye, you could see a few sparkling stars in the fading sunlight, and with the telescopes that we were about to look through, there would be what Adam called “access to the universe”—what Native Americans saw as they looked skyward long ago in the selfsame mountain terrain.


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After the sun went down, we followed Adam across the grounds toward a conference room. On the valley floor the temperature was 90 degrees, but on top of Mount Lemmon it was a cool 60 and dropping. Inside the Sky Center, Adam gave a talk as we waited for the night skies to present their treasure. An impassioned observer of the skies and renowned photographer of stars, galaxies and nebulae, he offered a quick and wide-ranging grounding in celestial matters. First, he unveiled a satellite image of Arizona. It was mostly covered in red. For star-gazing that was good. “The views tonight will be better than what most of humanity gets,” he said. “By the way, does anyone know why stars twinkle?” Apparently not. “Stars twinkle because Earth’s atmosphere disrupts light.” When it was fully dark, we repaired to one of the giant telescopes and the show began. 

There was Jupiter with all its bands and Saturn with its rings. There were old stars, shimmering sheets of dust, and what Adam called “stellar nurseries”—countless new stars that would enter the universe when conditions were right, clustered in pockets across the heavens. There was the Horsehead Nebula, the summer triangle—featuring the blue-white Vega, Deneb (the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus, the swan) and Altair; Venus and Mercury too, appearing as a thin silver crescent in a cloud. “Look,” Adam said. “There are the twin stars of Leda. Those are the stars that Poe mentioned in his story ‘Ligeia.’ ” This was a girl with whom Poe was obsessed. He couldn’t get over her eyes, describing them as “shining, divine orbs” that were his “twin stars of Leda,” rendering him “the devoutest of astrologers.” A Poe connection at the top of Mount Lemmon was indeed big news! Those who are familiar with my work will know that his poem “Eldorado” was pivotal in my life, essentially bringing me west by way of my father many years ago. Now Poe was bringing me to the stars, and I vowed to revisit the master as soon as I descended the mountain.

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By sheilamonster, August 30, 2010 at 11:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I digged this. As a devout nature groupie who keeps getting sucked into the LA
vortex I could really relate to the ‘star maps.’  I don’t understand why so many
posters have their panties in a bunch. Some times the landscape and our love for
it trumps and outlasts logic and politics. Thank Goodness!

Lord knows I need a break from all the outrage from time to time.

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By Stephen Pitt, August 30, 2010 at 8:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Behavior by individuals is exclusive-not inclusive of race.

However, “a long line of Jews” and “especially by Jews given their history”, does not reflect respect for all races, but instead specifies and focuses on a race of people-not individuals.

I would also rise up in equal measure to call out any*one* disparaging the American Indian just as vigorously.

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By claire quigley, August 30, 2010 at 7:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I found the piece to be well-written and inspired. It was a reminder to me of how vast the universe is, how compelled we are to try to understand it and our place in it, and how we are at our best when we look to the sky,listen to the ocean and realize that there are no boundaries.

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By Stephen Pitt, August 29, 2010 at 5:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’d appreciate it if racist Shift’s comment be removed.  It is off topic and hurtful.


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By Stephen Pitt, August 27, 2010 at 8:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

One can become obsessed with the night sky. For several years I tested refractors for a manufacturer and that meant never missing a New Moon phase every month for four years.

My first encounter with outside-the-box philosophizing was with my dad who left an indelible mark when I was seven. The Pleiades he explained were light years away and it would require traveling for years and years at the speed of light to reach them.  The concepts were extreme and I’ve been an “extremist” ever since.

Without grasping the sky’s significance, it’s scope, and it’s overwhelming power, I doubt mankind would ever have the opportunity to be humbled and inspired.

And…sigh…Astronomy is not Astrology, a scam pseudo-science.  Astronomy and the concepts it engenders requires brilliance when taken seriously-not dumbing-down.

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By ofersince72, August 26, 2010 at 10:29 pm Link to this comment

How many pages was this,  I could stomach one page
of it,  did I miss anything?

Oh Truth Dig,  Hey, lets do the limbo rock, how low can
you go.$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

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G.Anderson's avatar

By G.Anderson, August 26, 2010 at 7:57 pm Link to this comment

I wonder if this is someones kid, or cousin, or friend? A great example of, it’s not what
you know that’s important,  but who you know. And when you know next to
nothing,that’s the most important thing of all.

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By ardee, August 26, 2010 at 4:49 pm Link to this comment

I have a life long fascination with the stars, built a Newtonian reflector and gazed for years.

It is sad indeed that the very first post here was so ridiculous….

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By LadyR, August 26, 2010 at 4:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What silly drivel—what is the point of this author being on this site???

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By Aaron Ortiz, August 26, 2010 at 3:53 pm Link to this comment

I love the stars as well, but am surprised this article was included here of all

If the editors deride Christianity how could they not ridicule this!

Only yesterday the editors of this site mocked the majority of Americans for not
believing in evolution.

But of course, their implicit hatred of Christianity is political. They uphold Islam. (Muslims don’t believe in evolution either, editors.)

I for one would prefer religion be left in our private lives, and in places of
worship. I would also like people to respect each other’s apparent fallacies. If
you want to convince someone, you won’t achieve it sighing with ridicule.

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