29 October 2011

the ribbon of stars

I flew over the Grand Canyon on Sunday, and looking down at it, the memory that came to me wasn't of the times I've spent there.

No, looking at the gash of earth, I remembered camping in the Paria Wilderness with my family—not exactly the Grand Canyon but a back country swath of red rock and canyons and a river running through it all in Arizona and Utah.

We were on a five-day backpacking trip through the Paria Canyon, and we slept under the stars every night. Because we were in a canyon, it was a thin strip of stars above us. Skinny and deep blue, like a ribbon for a little girl's dress at Hannukah.

There were more stars in that ribbon than in the whole night sky above New York City, I bet.

Isolated in the canyon—at parts of the hike, you could touch both canyon walls by standing with your arms outstretched in the middle of the river—it was hard to imagine civilization and the light emanating from millions of homes and buildings and street lights.

All of that illumination of humanity blocks out the stars so that when we do get to a place where there's no other light competing for our attention, we all tend to stare at the massive reminder of our smallness.

In that ribbon above me in the Paria, there were more stars than I could imagine or see.

I read once that stars are most visible to us with our peripheral vision. It's something to do with the rods and the cones in our eyes, and it's why you always see a shooting star just over there, out of the corner of your eye. It's not because you're unlucky and never see them straight on; it's because of rods and cones and how your eyes work.

On those nights in the Paria, I was flat on my back, legs aching from the hike that day, looking straight up at the star-filled ribbon. If I'd turned to my side, would my eyes have been overwhelmed with the light?

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