You can probably bet if you are reading something that starts out with, “When I was a little girl ...,” that it was written by an old person.
When I was a little girl growing up in Springfield, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, we went on lots of school field trips. One of my favorites was to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, a museum that was established in 1824 to honor Benjamin Franklin and to showcase his inventions. It boasted, among other things, the Fels Planetarium.
The Fels Planetarium, which opened to the public in 1934, was my introduction to the night sky. In the 1950s, a giant mechanical insect-looking contraption sat in the middle of the of the planetarium theater and moved to project the seasonal constellations and planets onto the artificial sky in the theater’s 360-degree domed ceiling. I learned almost everything I know about astronomy in that planetarium.
In Springfield, as it has been in places I’ve lived through most of my life, it was easy to see stars and identify the Big Dipper on a dark night. However, not even the Fels Planetarium could have prepared me for the stars and planets that are visible where I live now in the Santa Lucia mountains in Cambria’s backcountry. The light pollution in towns and cities makes it very difficult to experience the magic of the night sky, but if you drive into the country, the sky blazes with stars.
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My first “ahhhhh” moment with the sky happened one night a few years ago when I got out of the car to open the gate below our house. When I looked up, I saw the Milky Way for the first time in my life. It looked like a river of stars, a white-on-black shadow in the sky. I never realized the awe I’d feel, seeing it so unexpectedly.
Whenever we have guests who stay until after dark, I like to take them outside and turn out the house lights so they can experience the visual feast of the night sky for themselves. If we’re lucky, we
get a double feature — one of Cambria’s spectacular sunsets, followed by an explosion of stars, a planet or two and the Milky Way.
The night sky has always called man like a siren song and wrung from pen and paintbrush depictions of the moon and stars. Vincent Van Gogh captured the exuberance of the night sky in his painting, “Starry Night,” which in turn inspired Don McLean’s song “Starry, Starry Night.”
Cambrians are luckier than most. Even if you don’t live in the backcountry, you only need to drive a few minutes out of town to get there. Some night, when the sky is clear and the moon is new, treat yourself to a drive into the dark—beyond the street lights and house lights. Step out of the car. Look up. Ahhhhh.
Marcia Rhoades (jmrho firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Cambria’s mountain community in the Santa Lucia range.