Big Bend National Park was the place I saw the full beauty of the night sky for the first time. I grew up on the East Coast near New York City, and went to college in New York. In the summer of 1972 when I was 19 my family went on a camping trip through the Southwest. I had visited many places in the East, but this was my first visit to the West.
We drove southwest from New York through Tennessee and Arkansas, then down through Texas to Dallas, stopping at campgrounds and to visit friends of my parents along the way. From Dallas we dropped down to San Antonio. Until we neared San Antonio the scenery looked pretty familiar; green grass, tall trees.
I remember that we left San Antonio just before dawn following Route 90, and as the sun came up, suddenly the landscape out the car window turned to the West of my imagination. Big Bend is in a very isolated area along the Rio Grande on the U.S.-Mexican border about halfway between San Antonio and El Paso. At that time the surrounding area was virtually uninhabited desert and we drove the entire day through dry, empty land that shimmered with heat.
We pulled into Big Bend and found our campsite just before sunset. After dinner I walked a little way down the road to fill a water can at the campground tap. There were no electric lights in the campground and by then it was full dark, and moonless. I had a flashlight with me, but at the tap I needed one hand to keep the faucet open and the other to hold the water can steady so I stuck the flashlight in my pocket. In the dark, waiting for the can to fill, I happened to glance up.
Away from the blinding light of the Coleman lanterns on our picnic table I was suddenly able to see the night sky. There were not just stars, but layer upon layer of stars; hundreds and thousands of them. I was used to looking at the night sky in the humid and light-saturated East and seeing a few stars, and being able to pick out the brightest stars in the constellations, but here where there was no humidity, no clouds, no electric lights for miles and no buildings or trees to block the horizon, the blue-black sky had depth, I felt as if I could fall into it.
I was out there in the dark staring at the stars for so long my mother came to find me and we stood looking at the sky together for a while. A beautiful glowing band of light that arched across the entire black bowl from one horizon to the other puzzled me. It resembled a bank of thin, high clouds, but did not behave like any cloud formation I had ever seen. It glowed with a strange internal light and disappeared when I looked directly at it, only to reappear when I looked to either side. I pointed it out to my mother, and asked if she could see it too. I was amazed when she told me it was the Milky Way. I had never seen it before.
After seeing the night sky at Big Bend I understood for the first time why people in ancient times mapped out and named the constellations and then gave the constellations life with myths of gods and heroes, and why they were so fascinated by the movement of the stars and planets, ascribing to them power to predict and control the future.
Sometimes on clear nights I stand in my New Jersey backyard or on a nearby golf course and look for that elusive, glowing band of stars that is our home galaxy, but after we left Big Bend I never saw it again. I have always promised myself that some day I will make it back there so that I can again see the amazing beauty of the night sky as our ancestors did.