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.