May 20, 2013
Riding the Milky Way in Tucson
Posted on Aug 26, 2010
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.
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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