to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.
The Bonemeister and I made it to Kingman before long and then proceeded on I-40 east. After less than 30 miles we approached the merger with state highway 93-south, which heads toward Wickenburg, more than 100 miles distant. From Wickenburg, roads lead to Phoenix, Tucson, and points toward the border.
We left the interstate and veered onto this secondary route with a spectacular but rapidly fading desert sunset over our shoulders.
I-40 is a major east-west artery. Phoenix is a vast metro area. But oddly that day, Rt 93, connecting the two on a NW-SE axis, seemed wholly deserted as it ran through terrain more vacant than inhabited. Few vehicles could be seen in front or behind. The occasional car passed us going in our direction. Headlights driving toward Kingman intermittently appeared on the horizon and quickly disappeared as tail lights in the rear view mirror. Aside from that, we were essentially alone on Rt 93 as an early moonless nocturne enveloped the countryside.
It was before we reached Wickenburg, in the middle of nowhere, in the inky darkness, that I noticed a beautiful and increasingly rare phenomenon.
With all of the problems facing the 21st century world – global warming, nuclear proliferation, unsustainable deficits – artificial light might not seem too serious. Light pollution is simply the excessive, misdirected, or intrusive presence of human-generated light. But its lack of media attention does not minimize the impact it exerts on the environment and inhabitants.
Light pollution is a side effect of unfettered growth and industrialization. It disrupts ecosystems, especially of nocturnal flora and migratory fauna. It can endanger aviation. It interferes with our intrinsic night vision. It wastes resources (indoor and outdoor excess light in the U.S. is estimated to burn the equivalent of 2M barrels of oil per day). It ruptures circadian rhythms. It is far from harmless. And in reaction, since the early 1980s, a nascent global ‘dark sky’ movement has emerged – one that advocates efficient and judicious use of artificial light – as more people become concerned with the degradation of the natural environment – but seem in most quarters to be fighting a losing battle.
My observations that night commenced with a simple need to answer the call of nature – no rest stops out here. I pulled the car over on gravel by the side of the road next to what appeared to be a large empty field with black woods around. I turned off the engine and headlight, and only then realized just how dark it was.
Granted, the natural atmosphere is never perfectly dark, even in the absence of proximate foci of light. Upper atmospheric radiation produces ionization which can result in a diffuse ‘airglow’ under the right conditions. All phases of the lunar cycle but that of a new moon throw illumination, even when still under the horizon. Studies have shown that artificial emanation, especially when the sky is partially cloudy, can still be detected up to 60 miles from an urban center. All notwithstanding, the contrast with the ‘normal’ industrialized sky to which we’ve all become accustomed, as I stood there in empty rural Arizona that night, was striking. It took a while for my senses to accommodate. I looked overhead and gasped… there was brilliant twinkling from one horizon to the next. Constellations were easily visible that I had seen before only in books. The sky was a velvet drape of pitch on which seemed to sparkle millions of carats of extraterrestrial diamonds.
And the silence was intense. Mesmerized, I remained transfixed for what must have been twenty minutes – that’s a long time to be standing doing nothing in the middle of nowhere. After a while, a soft low humming noise was detected, almost imperceptibly at first. But from where did it come? I had not noticed it before. I then realized that it was the sound of an approaching car… while still a mile(s) distant. Sure enough, a tiny glow then appeared on the horizon, and after waiting longer did a vehicle appear and flash past, only to be swallowed as it rocketed into the opposite darkness.
Then the Stygian night and silence returned.
The observation that I was entirely alone, my surroundings like obsidian, in total silence, with a dead guy in my back seat didn’t dawn on me until much later.
After absorbing as much of this strange otherworldly beauty as I could handle, I returned to the car, fired up the fire-breathing dragon – it seemed now so noisy and bright – and headed south. We still had a way to go before our hotel in Marana.
[to be continued…]
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