We had gone there to walk up to and inside of the crater, a dark raised rim about 200 ft high lined with tumbling black rubble with occasional brick red making an appearance. The rocks sounded like lumps of glass as our feet pushed them down the slope and against each other as we carefully made our way down the steep trail back.
We had walked for several hours and it had been warm so we were grateful for the relative coolness of evening as the sun set around five thirty and we enjoyed Ron’s grilled steak and veggies from the barbecue in the now vacant parking area. We were alone in the deserted area, and had our pick of covered picnic tables, but it was now quite dark so we decided to dine in the camper. It was so quiet, the only interruption in the silence was our own conversation and the occasional whistle and rumbling rhythm of a passing freight train. I washed our plasticky white dishes in the little black sink in the camper, wearing my blue kitchen gloves. We are in dry country now for sure, and me wearing gloves is a sign. I go through cases of the greasiest creams and sunscreens trying to protect my thinning Northwesterner’s skin. I washed the grease and pungent garlic bits off of the vegetable grill and handed it to Ron who then stepped out into the dark and down onto the two steps out of the back door of the camper to put it in the trailer we haul.
“Julie, you need to come and see this!” He said at once, excitedly. Ron is not a very excitable kind of guy so I took my gloves off, threw my dish towel on the little dinette and came and looked over his shoulder.
“Whoa!” I gasped. “What the …?” And after a moment of scanning my conscious and subconscious memory for a match of what I saw filling the black sky and coming up with nothing, said, “What IS it?”
Ron asked for his camera, and I grabbed it from behind the table. I searched for the binoculars, fumbling to remove it from its case and take off lens caps in the dim interior light. I pulled out my Ipad. My emotional state was somewhere between delight and apocalyptic fear as I stepped onto the pavement . It was ungodly quiet,
and I actually felt the earth move under my feet on the black pavement as I looked up and West above the horizon. ” Did you feel that?” I asked Ron as the camera clicked. He didn’t. My pulse was racing. I don’t recall ever seeing something so extraordinarily beyond my experience.
Our eyes were fastened to a huge pale blue ball of light about 20 degrees above the horizon. It was magnificently large. If I had held a beach ball at arms length above me, it would fairly represent the size. It was soft at the edges. It was brighter at the core. It was a cloud, it was a jellyfish, it was a nightlight reflecting on a dark wall of the bedchamber of the gods. And as if that weren’t spectacle enough, a cone of light appeared some distance to the right! pointing up! slowly revolving! pointing down then, probing the earth with its light. The great blue mothership cloud moved away very slowly to the left.
A car drove up, breaking the spell, and someone got out. We babbled excitedly. Well Ron may have spoken the Queens English, but I definitely babbled.
What luck! A rocket scientist, no kidding! He puzzled over the apparition with us.
Another car arrived, another faceless male voice joined the animated musings.
An astronomer! On my grandmother’s grave, it is true.
The blue ball is fading, the cone and plume of orange is slowly evaporating, and the dark night is a jeweled quilt of shining diamonds straight from the lullabies.
Gary and Tom have come to a conclusion. They think we have witnessed a rocket launch. Off the California Coast, near Catalina Island or Edwards Air Force Base three or four hundred miles away. The Beautiful blue glow was rocket fuel. The tumbling beacon of light was the falling “stage” of the rocket.
We were amazed that they had arrived so fortuitously to help us with this puzzle, and asked why they had come, presuming they had been driving the Amboy Highway, seen the striking light show in the North, and pulled over to have a look.
It turns out, they had already intended to be at this particularly dark place tonight. There was no moon, there was a meteor shower, and furthermore they had gigantic telescopes which they began to unpack from their cars. They obviously knew each other and Tom, spoke with obvious respect and deference to Gary, who sounded, in the anonymity of darkness, like an Englishman and perhaps the elder of the two.
“Dammit!” I cursed, laughing out loud as we talked to each other’s disembodied voices, “before you guys came, I saw my first UFO!”
We set up our lawn chairs and reclined them, got on coats, hats hot tea, a blanket. The dog bed. The dog had her coat too of course, I had just clipped most of her natural coat off and she wagged appreciation as the temperature began to drop pretty fast.
Our new friends set up amidst the sound of robotic sighs and human jargon of a very specialized scientific subspecies. I had no idea what they were talking about, except it was their equipment and it seemed to give them great pleasure. The exchange of knowledge and parts, particularly when given as a gift seemed central to their happiness.
Not only were these guys knowledgeable and nice, they were talented educators. you have to be talented to educate yours truly, and they did a bang up job. We watched the first meteor cross straight out of Taurus, flinging a trail of sparks behind it like a Fourth of July Sparkler. I saw over a dozen that night, but none as bright as the first. I saw what I thought were train lights on the horizon, nonplussed after the first great event of the night, I didn’t even remark on them til Someone said, “look over there, what is THAT?” The train lights were now leaping off of the ground into the sky in great arcs. Those were determined to be flares from the military base. Lights for war games. Another singular spectacle. I was spoon fed Fun Facts, and had many ignorant but urgent questions answered as we stargazed the evening away. They shared visions of the galaxy Sculptor near Pisces, a gorgeous slanted disk and Andromeda, the nearest galaxy in the constellation of Andromeda, a mere puff of a cotton ball of light.
Did You Know:
The Summer Triangle, which has three very bright stars, seemingly equadistant contain; Deneb, 3550 light years away, Vega, 25 light years away, and Altair, 16.6 light years away. Light travels at six trillion miles per year. To the naked eye they look about the same distance away. When Tom described their disparate mass it got even more mind boggling. “Are they still there?” I asked? He said that the Universe is about fourteen billion years old and stars that are about the same size as our sun (which is about 4 billion years old) live about thirteen billion years, so most of the ones we can see are likely still alive.
Next day, we checked hopefully for any good photos. Nada. Sorry, you will have to take my word for it if you didn’t see it in the news. We had coffee with our new friends, more had arrived long after we hit the sack. I did rise at 5:30 and saw the space station glimmering across the Northern Horizon for several minutes, the brightest thing in the sky, just as Tom described. We had coffee together at one of the tables and got better acquainted. We learned from Gary before he left that they actually used this Very crater to test the equipment they built. Remember the Rovers. that’s Gary from the Jet Propulsion Lab.
Landing a Rocket ……remotely on board a ship to reuse for SpaceX, building electric Dual Sport for Zero Motor Cycles. That would be Micheal. teaching from a portable Observatory, including the amazing location in Nevada during Burning man? that would be Tom.
And Kevin, kindly sharing his patches, a dispatcher for local EMT’s and of course, in engineering.
We parted company with heartfelt handshakes and embraces, received great gifts to remember them by, invited them to visit in Loreto – another really dark place, and headed our separate ways, somehow elevated by the whole experience and drove into the warming light of day.