By Kate Prengaman
August: Notes from camping in the Big Rocks Wilderness, Lincoln County, Nevada.
I believe that star-gazing is good for the soul. Maybe it's just my soul, but feeling like a tiny speck on a tiny planet beneath a sparkling, infinite sky can heal most of what ails me. It's calming, inspiring, a way to feel connected to a world larger than I can really know. And while you can do almost anything in Vegas, you really can't star-gaze. The shine of the Strip and the sprawling lights of suburbia are so bright that even on a good night, you'll never see more than a handful of stars. To really appreciate the rest of the universe, you've got to head for the hills.
Nevada's wilderness can be an excellent place to star gaze. It's easy to find campsites with a good view of wide sky, since we don't have the continuous, dense canopies of deciduous forests. In our dry climate, it's rare to have low-hanging clouds ruin your view. There are few mosquitoes and low odds for a sudden rain storm, so you don't really need to hide from the elements in your tent. With so many protected wilderness areas, we still have plenty of places that are well beyond the glow of towns and cities. Head out on a camping trip with a constellation chart and some patience, and you could see more constellations than you ever knew existed. And those are just the stationary stars. While you are mapping out those Greek gods, you'll undoubtedly catch a few flashing meteors.
Seeing a good shooting star makes you feel special. Good luck, make a wish, etc... But as it turns out, there are millions of meteors flashing across the sky, throughout the day and night, caused usually by sand-sized grains of astronomical grit, burning up with friction through the air molecules of the atmosphere. According to space.com, we can usually only see .005% of the sky at one time, bringing our eye's share of shooting stars to an average of 12 per hour. If you are watching with constant vigilance. For the casual, fire-side star-gazer, catching a few big, brilliant ones is cause for celebration. Until I started spending my summers sleeping without a tent in Nevada's wilderness, I saw only a few shooting stars a year. Now I see a few a night.
In August, I was camped out in the Big Rocks Wilderness in Lincoln County. As I lay in my sleeping bag, dwarfed by the boulders of Pahroc Canyon, the milky way was shining clear. July's monsoon clouds had cleared, the half-moon rose late, and the high canyon walls block any faint light pollution from spoiling the view. In the hour or so before I'd drifted to sleep, I usually saw more than 15 shooting stars, big sweeping flashes across the sky. Sleeping out every night in the desert, I am used to seeing a few before I close my eyes, but this show was above and beyond. I later found out that the Earth was passing through the Perseid Meteor Shower, an annual rotation through a cloud of debris that usually occurs in mid-august and provides a spectacular sky show.
The next night, the sky-show got even better. A big electrical storm hung over the Delmar Valley to the south of us. We could barely hear the thunder, but the sky flashed and glowed with lightning strikes every minute or two. Far enough away to be free from the fears of rain (and putting up a tent in a wet, 2am panic) and lightning-strike fire, we just enjoyed the light-show. Shooting stars dove across the sky into the huge cloud of flashing light and got swallow by the storm. A show so good it was hard to close my eyes.
Kate Prengaman is a Field Botanist with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who also writes and volunteers for Friends of Nevada Wilderness.