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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 3)

Yet other delights were in store. Our space odyssey continued and a mix of meditative techno sounds played in the background, and then our very own galaxy came into view—the Milky Way in all its splendor, the glittering and endless expanse that is our home and does not have borders. And this was the thing that kicked Tucson into a new category for me.

You see, the card that I had drawn when I asked my original question was the cow. Cow represents nourishment, healing and protection. And she is associated with the Milky Way, a trail of bounty or mother’s milk, a celestial echo of ancient cattle paths which connected towns and cities. Many times had I seen the Milky Way (or eaten it; I was addicted to the eponymous candy bar in college), but never before in a particular context, as an answer to an urgent question. Perhaps the card explained why so many people head toward the region, in spite of great hardship along the way. 

Around midnight it was time for the Perseid showers, and I joined everyone else as we positioned ourselves outside with binoculars and star maps provided by the Sky Center. Each of us was assigned a particular constellation to watch for meteors passing through. Shortly after midnight they began their dance, and I saw one that left a really long trail blast through Cepheus in the northern sky.

As we waited for more starbursts, there came one more piece of significant information. Adam pointed out Sagittarius with his laser. “See the teapot at the center?” he said. “That’s the center of our galaxy.” A teapot is the center of the Milky Way? This was like the Monopoly card “bank makes mistake in your favor” and combined with all of the other news that had come my way, it was all a big score.


Square, Site wide

Later, as I made my way down the mountain under the twinkling sky, I heard the rumble of Harley pipes, and I thought about the guy in the Sons of Anarchy T-shirt and his long hair flowing as he flew across the night road. And then I remembered something I learned in California, an ancient Shoshone belief, that hair was considered sacred, a connection to the ethers. Perhaps when their own hair was stirred by a desert breeze, they felt an attachment to something greater than themselves. Often, they mimicked the link in their sand paintings; with human hair, they made ropes that ran from the middle of the painting to the four directions, tying the soul to the wind and beyond. 

Stars too were another connection to immortality. The Shoshone believed that the twinkling illuminations were souls of the dead, and that if you gazed at the Milky Way, you could follow the path that souls traveled, and connect with the ancestors forever. And that’s what I did at the top of Mount Lemmon as I read the star maps, crossing all borders and finding a new home—or at least a place where I could rest easy for a while, until the Joshua trees called me back from the saguaros with their siren Mojave song.

Deanne Stillman’s latest book is the widely acclaimed “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,” a Los Angeles Times “Best Book ’08” and winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction. Her book includes an account of the 1998 Christmas horse massacre outside Reno, as well as the story of Bugz, the lone survivor of the incident. Her work appears in the L.A. Times, Slate, Orion and other publications and is widely anthologized. Her plays, including “Star Maps,” have won prizes in theater festivals around the country. She is currently writing “Mojave Manhunt” for Nation Books, based on her Rolling Stone piece of the same name. Follow Deanne Stillman on Facebook.

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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.

Report this

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.

Report this

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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