What Star Gazing Looks Like From the Last of the Wild Roads

At the crest between valleys, I take out binoculars, and in turn they take my breath, multiplying the number of visible stars tenfold. I feel as though I’m falling, have to pull away to find my balance in the dark.

Star Gazing in Death Valley
Marc Adamus/Getty Images

True darkness is rare in our lit-up world. But our well-being depends on the still—and the thrill—of the night.

“We’re going to be in a big black hole on the map,” says Dan Duriscoe, slowing his red Toyota Tundra so we can gaze down into Death Valley National Park. “There’s nothing between us and that mountain, and then there’s nothing for another 100 miles.” Dan speaks in a low, gravelly voice and has encyclopedic knowledge of the desert west. He’s full of dirt roads leading off into deserted valleys and turnoffs no one else knows. As a founding member of the National Park Service’s Night Sky Team, Dan has traveled all over the United States documenting levels of darkness. Death Valley holds some of the darkest places he’s seen. Tonight we are headed to one of his favorite spots, Eureka Valley, between the Last Chance Range and the Sylvania Mountains. “This is about as isolated as you can get in California,” he says.

We drop into Eureka Valley, hit washboard gravel for miles, turn and climb 100 yards past a Road Closed sign, and park. Immediate stillness and quiet, no wind, no bugs, the scent of sagebrush and creosote, distant sand dunes 60 feet high. We set up chairs and a table and build a fire.

“This is what I live for,” he says. “I can’t imagine life without this.” In the West, Venus is a brilliant white ball just above the desert mountain silhouette, bright like a porch light or like a headlight coming over the ridge. But there is no house, and there is no car. A loose chain of planes bobs toward San Francisco far to the north, a faint amber glows from Los Angeles to the southwest, but there is no one anywhere for miles around and not a single individual artificial light in any direction. Already the sky feels ancient—big, darker each minute, and filling with light, as though the growing dark is sifting stars, spreading them on black fabric before us.

Primitive darkness. The desert before civilization, before settlement. The dark land with no light of its own, and stars coming all the way to the ground: the Big Dipper setting, revolving into the northern horizon, Orion rising from southeast earth with Betelgeuse flashing its red-orange cape in the atmosphere. The zodiacal band, like a fainter Milky Way, twirls skyward from the western horizon. The valley so dark you see night’s natural light—the zodiacal light and airglow, and maybe 10 percent from the stars. Dan and I see each other faintly. With no trees or woods, we see in all directions to where mountains saw jagged horizons from the bottom of the sky. That sky becomes brighter and darker the longer we stay out, in a way almost no one in America experiences now.

Space Station
Courtesy NASA

All over the country, dark places are disappearing from the map. Computer images based on NASA photos show a steady spread of lights across the land, and the projected view of 2025 imagines the entire country east of the Mississippi as one great rash of yellows and reds, the most intensely populated 
areas blisters of white. Even west of the great river, only scraps of black remain, each surrounded by a civilization gnawing at its ragged edges.

Seen from satellites at night, our planet’s continents burn as though on fire. Across the globe, the collected glow from streetlights, parking lots, gas stations, shopping centers, sports stadiums, office buildings, and individual houses clearly details borders between land and water, sometimes spreading even into the sea on squid fishing boats, their spotlights built to mimic noonday sun. It would be one thing if all this light were beneficial. But while some does good work—guiding our way, offering a sense of security, adding beauty to our nightscape—most is waste. The light we see in photos from space, from an airplane window, from our 14th-floor hotel room, is light allowed to shine into the sky, into our eyes, illuminating little of what it was meant to and costing us dearly. In ways we have long understood, in others we are just beginning to understand, night’s darkness has always been invaluable for our health and the health of the natural world, and every living thing suffers from its loss.

Not long ago, I decided to see for myself what was left of the night. I would travel from our brightest, most intensely lit cities into the desert west, to a place where I could experience real darkness.

We like to think that darkness “falls,” as though it were like snow, but as the earth turns its back to the sun, darkness actually rises from the east to wash and flood over land and sea. If you’ve ever stood at dusk and seen a gloaming on the eastern horizon, as though clouds were gathering, a thunderstorm brewing, that’s what you’re seeing—the earth’s shadow as we rotate into it. What we call “night” is the time when we are caught in that shadow, a shadow that extends into space like the cone to Earth’s ice cream, a hundred times taller than it is wide, its vertex 860,000 miles above the earth. Dawn comes as we rotate out of that shadow into the edges of direct sunlight.

Humanity evolved over millions of years to this rhythm of bright days and dark nights, and it’s only within the past century or so that we have disrupted this ancient pattern. The potential consequences—according 
to sleep researchers, epidemiologists, cancer researchers, and other 
scientists—are enormous. New research suggests that confusing our 
circadian rhythms and impeding our production of the darkness hormone, melatonin, has the power to dramatically harm our body’s ancient codes.

The World Health Organization now lists night-shift work as a probable carcinogen, and working at night has been linked to increased risk of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. While those working third shift are affected far more than the rest of us, almost everyone living in the developed world is affected by nighttime light, including that coming from our electronic gadgets, and scientists are trying to determine how much light causes which problems.

Similarly, artificial light affects our ecosystems. Around 30 percent of all vertebrates and more than 60 percent of all invertebrates are nocturnal, and many of the rest are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). While most of us are inside and asleep, outside, the night world is wide awake with matings, migrations, pollinations, and feeding—all now suffering interference.

Times Square Time Lapse
Stephen Wilkes

And what of a starry night sky?
 Already two thirds of Americans live in places so polluted by light that we cannot see the Milky Way, and most children born in the United States today will never see this sight. What are the costs to our imagination and our spirit when we lose this inspiring view?

No one is talking about getting rid of light at night. But more and more people are discussing controlling light pollution and protecting those last few areas where we can still experience real darkness. Many of those places can be found in our western national parks, like the one I visit with Dan.

In Death Valley, our eyes go dark-adapted, good at ten minutes, even more so at 45, but then after two hours of wide-open eyes and the land with no lights, the sky shifts into focus, like an optometrist switching a lens and saying, “Better?”

Before this, there were stars, but now there are stars upon stars and a sense of stars you can’t yet see. “In the city, you will never see like this,” Dan says. “Even out here it takes patience, and we expect instant results. People drive out from Las Vegas because they hear there’s a star party and say, ‘Now show me the night sky; I got about five minutes.’ ”

We climb from Eureka and drop into Crankshaft Junction, Dan saying, “These are the last of the wild roads” and “We’re in the blackest part of the map.” We are within a few miles of the Nevada border, the Los Angeles light dome blocked by mountains, but not the faint dome from Las Vegas, some 160 miles away southeast. I have been at the center of that, and now I am at the center of this—from the brightest spot on the map to one of the darkest.

This dark land. The way I no longer expect to see any lights. The way the dark feels both comfortable and comforting as the night goes on. “Lots of amateur astronomers don’t care as long as they can see the sky,” Dan explains, “but to me, it’s the land and the sky together that makes this experience unique in the West—the wild land and the wild sky.” And then, speaking of the Night Sky Team, “That’s what we’re trying to preserve, the ability to see and appreciate the natural night landscape.”

At the crest between valleys, I take out binoculars, and in turn they take my breath, multiplying the number of visible stars tenfold. I feel as though I’m falling, have to pull away to find my balance in the dark. The ground on which I’m standing, the cloth of stars above. The great nebula in Orion’s Belt, the Pleiades, Jupiter so bright and clear it makes me laugh. And then here comes Sirius. The brightest star we ever see, and—because it’s so low, the atmosphere a prism—flashing like a pinwheel sparkler, green and red and purple and blue. Then superbright shooting stars, like green-yellow flares falling from the sky. And then for me, for the first time, the Andromeda galaxy in clear detail—the most distant object we can see without a lens, at two million light-years away—the photons that have been traveling toward earth all this time now touching the back of my eyes.

The turning earth, the presented universe—in the dry desert air the stars come down to the horizon, in the west blinking out as they fall from the world’s edge, and in the east blinking on, as though lit and set into the sky by some happy wild creatures just on the mountain’s other side.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest