The Value of Dark Sky Locations

It's late June and if it were anywhere else, summer would feel like it's raging. But this is Colorado, where weather consistency is a laughable phrase. At the base of the mountain it was a warm 28°C, but at 3,800m it's barely reaching 14°C with a biting breeze. I look at my watch, it's 19:00. Sunset is approaching.

We cook burgers at base camp, being mindful that this is bear country. We eat quickly and hustle setting up our tent, we'll be back long after nightfall and won't want to struggle with poles in the dead of night. In goes the cooler full of food to the cab of my truck. We quickly shift gear from one set of bags to another and in no time at all we're hiking the mile trail to the shore of Clohesy Lake, our makeshift camp until bedtime. Only one other couple made it up the road, which makes quick mincing of unskilled drivers and stock rigs. They're from Tennessee and pretty self reserved, which makes for what we wanted: a quiet and isolated night.

We make fast order of our temporary home. A hammock is erected between two trees, gear gets hung from branches, dishes get cleaned, and we start building a fire pit right along the shore. The hammock gives way to one of the most pristine and relaxing views I've seen in years. If you listen closely you hear the best sound of them all: The sheer absence of society. This is perfect, this is going to be the night I've waited for. It's been five years since I've come here and I wasn't a photographer then, no scratch that, I wasn't the man I am today.

The camera goes up, two batteries in, my IR remote in my pocket. I start shooting the sunset as we build up the fire. It's a great night. Probably not what someone would call a normal date but she gets it, I'd rather be here than any other place. One, two, three runs back to the truck and we've got everything we need for the night. Even A&W Creme Soda's. Yeah, we're classy like that.

Sunset makes quick work of the warmth, we're now battling with very poor firewood to fight the 5°C temperatures that descended upon this walled-off Utopia. I move my camera a couple more times and get my focus dead on the stars. We sit back and get the fire raging while the camera's shutter starts opening and closing, 20 seconds apart. I'm doing what I came here for: Capturing the true Dark Sky of our world.

We don't appreciate the dark sky like we used to.

The sky and its predictable behavior has a deep rooted connection to human history. Ancient societies were very proficient at identifying objects in the night sky, even with very primitive technology. They could use it to predict seasons, changes, and cycles. What cultures like the Egyptians and Mayans knew is still the foundations to our calendar and date keeping systems today. We owe the success of our crops and the growth of our species to the beauty that sits above us, often ignored today.

We take for granted what this gorgeous display tells us about our planet and its its cycles and place in the Universe. We'd rather sit inside and watch TV than take in the beauty and light show of our host galaxy. Why go out side when we can sit on social media and suffer the predictable envy that comes with curated, fake lives on display. Forget what's out there, we've created a false sense of permanence in here.

For me, this was never enough. I've always felt a draw toward the sky and I cannot shake it no matter what I do. Sitting out on the shore of Clohesy Lake, it became more evident than ever why. Within an hour of sunset, you could see the Galactic Center cresting right above the mountains, a faint blue to the naked eye, but clear as day. It was beautiful, haunting, and spiritually relieving to see it. Astronauts have called it "The Overview Effect", where your perspective changes when you begin to realize how small the earth is by comparison to the Universe at large. I won't even pretend to know how profound that must feel for an Astronaut or Cosmonaut looking back at earth, but I do feel that you get a small taste of it when you fall in love with astronomy and astrophysics. I cannot deny the profound sense of release and perspective that comes from spending more and more time under the stars.

It becomes even more evident when I get home with my camera and post edit the pictures. What my sensor captures isn't fake, in fact it's far more real than what my eyes can see. It makes me feel awestruck, dumbfounded, and small all at once. Looking up at the void I can see some of it, but I can hardly understand the whole scope of it until I see it later. When I do, it stares back at me with such force that I cannot help but sideline my petty issues and feel a sense of appreciation for this life.

I feel envious of the ancient humans before me. I don't romanticize their world, I know it was of the most brutal kind. But to experience what they did on most nights, I have to travel far and wide seeking out places where Mans desire to conquer the earth hasn't yet manifested. I fear that for future generations, this appreciation may slip farther into the void as technology replaces personal, real experience.

As a father, I want my daughter to experience this. I want to believe that if I expose her early, she'll take an interest faster than I did. I'd love to see her grow into a science field and have a profound appreciation for our world. I feel if she gets the chance to see this, she'll feel what I feel too, and want to spend more time with it. She loves the stars and planets, always looking at them in books and naming them and their features as she goes. As she gets older, she will become my sidekick on these journeys. Ones where we both learn.

The true value of Dark Sky's is affording ourselves the time to disconnect. To unplug the synthetic world we've created that meshes over reality and hides us from the uncomfortable, challenging reality around us. Experiences like these allow us to rip the mask off our existence and expose its real face, often requiring us to go far and wide to discover it. We're forced to be back in nature, to be one among our earth and all its inhabitants. From the humble trout poking out of the lakes calm wake for food to the warm, familiar sun in our sky; you realize how each component plays a role in this world.

Even though I often end up hiking 16-24 kilometers during these trips, I walk way feeling completely recharged. It's a fresh day each time, one with a rich experience and a unique place scratched off my bucket list. I feel less petty and more appreciative, leading me to value the people around me a lot more. I feel these experiences help build me up as a person and give me the chance to challenge what I've become comfortable with. What started as a quest to capture the perfect photo has turned into a personal quest to see the world in a whole new way. As long as I'm physically able to, I'll never stop looking up now... And I hope others will too...