Somewhere in the foggy in-between of adolescence, when I was old enough to recognize the possibilities that the steady march of technology might afford me in the following fifty years or so, but not yet old enough to really grasp the finality of death, I made a bargain with myself: should I ever get the opportunity to go to space, even if the trip were one way, I’d be first in line to volunteer for the mission being offered, presumably, by a NASA whose mission by that time would have been fundamentally and grotesquely reimagined.
I don’t think I’d take that trip today (hey, who knows though, right?), but my fascination with the cosmos held strong through and beyond those even-cloudier periods of high school and college. Today, when I find myself in the wilderness on a clear night, I’ll often end up in the vertiginous position of standing and looking straight overhead, trying to wrap my understanding around the vast and utterly incomprehensible-to-humans distance that those fated photons had to travel to meet my retina.
While I’ve been mostly content to stay on Earth’s surface while I consider the stars, I still want to get the best look. To achieve that prime celestial vantage, I’ve learned (after hours of painstaking research), one needs to go somewhere where it’s really dark at night. In truth, that’s not as easy as my flippancy makes it sound. Those places are steadily disappearing: the same march that carries technology toward the stars has been carrying electric light into the wilderness.
The earth’s oceans, far away from our species’ troublesome grids of electricity, do offer that pure darkness. Indeed, I gather that those arctic cruises can be spectacular. But after a certain point, aficionados will tell you, light pollution is no longer the limiting factor. It isn’t the glow from faraway cities that limits the view, but rather the ambient humidity: air droplets that scatter the light of dim stellar objects. Even once you wring the moisture out, the air itself becomes a liability. To further enhance the view, one must reduce the amount of atmosphere between the observer and the stars, that is, you gotta go higher up. Therefore, as an adult marginally more rational than I was at twelve, I sought not a potentially lethal trip to space, but to the darkest, driest, and highest place on Earth.
So, naturally, when I found myself in the Southern hemisphere, I scheduled a special trip to northern Chile. I insisted that my wife Ruby and I plan our jaunt so we’d arrive when the nights were moonless. Beautiful as Luna would be over the Atacama desert, her glow would interfere with the deep communion with the cosmos that I’d dreamed of.
We flew into Calama, a small city that seemed to my apparently untrained eye already to be in the middle of the desert. But further into the dryness we immediately pressed, catching one of the thrice-daily tourist vans to San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis town another sixty miles through the sand.
Everything that you might already be imagining about the particulars of Chilean desert town is accurate, dear reader. Single-level whitewashed buildings surrounded red rock cobblestone squares that usually featured a mission-style church. Friendly street dogs waited at a respectful distance while tourists ate on sidewalks outside of restaurants, where travellers might spend an afternoon drinking a twelve dollar bottle of world-class Chilean wine. Down the street from any given plaza, a family that had probably owned their house for a hundred years set up souvenir tables outside their front door, where in place of mass-market trinkets they sold traditional handicrafts of the Atacama people, a tribe of which the family was still a part. Gringo tourists with hiking shoes and sporty sunglasses perused the stalls before signing up for a trek through El Valle de la Luna to see the eerie landscape and the old salt mines. College-age backpackers walked back to their hostels with cheap beer for an afternoon siesta that might turn into them missing their evening hike.
But probably missing from your imagination are the packets of coca tea and the soroche pills that are widely available to help visitors adjust to the fact that there is fully 25% less available oxygen at Atacama, which sits at 7,900 feet above sea level, this being a large part of the draw for the amateur and professional astronomers who flock there. I assumed that you did not include the altitude in your mental image of San Pedro not because of an assumption I have about your worldliness nor regarding your ability to recognize the requirements that I myself laid out just paragraphs ago, foresightful reader, but rather because I hadn’t realized it, and it helps me to feel better if you didn’t, either.
Did we, then, fall to lethargy, to labored breaths and headachy naps? No, and purely by accident, which tracked with the quasi-mystic fortuity that has tagged along after we decided to open ourselves to the world. I’d planned our trip to Atacama immediately after we visited Cusco, Peru, which is perched at a gasping 11,000 feet. Instead of needing coca tea (which has about as much zing as a cup of coffee, by the way) to function, by the time we got to the desert, it was simply part of a pleasant Andean morning ritual I’d adopted.
Getting to a new town had by this time also developed a sort of ritual: check in to our AirBnB or hostel (and pay an extra $15 a night for a private room while acknowledging that we’ve aged out of dorms), walk around the area bit, and ask a local where to grab a bite. This time, though, I had a mission. I asked the twentysomething Chilean at the front desk about the star tours that I‘d read every hostel organizes.
“Oh. There aren’t any right now. The moon’s full.” She delivered my execution with excellent English and with little accent, something pretty common in South America.
“I….what?” I croaked.
“Yeah, we only run them when there’s no moon, when it’s full you can’t see anything,” she said, as if it weren’t a big deal, as if I hadn’t already known that about the moon, and as if the verdant meadow in which grew my dreams, just moments before in full bloom, had somehow survived the cataclysmic arrival of the blazing twin fireballs of irony and fate.
Walking dazed through unpaved roads, I sought one of the stargazing companies that dotted the town, holding on to a glimmer of hope that perhaps the most dedicated of astronomers would generate enough demand for these shops to offer…something, I’m not sure what. A corner store in the square abutting our hostel had an impressive telescope in the window as well as a helpful dry-erase board. It read, in English and Spanish: CLOSED – FULL MOON.
I’ve since reconstructed the origins of my error. Making plans in August of 2019, I consulted a moon chart online and changed the month to February, confirmed a night of no moon, and planned accordingly. But I must not have changed the year to 2020. And so, I found myself in the Atacama Desert, the Mecca of astronomy, at six o’clock in the evening and the full moon just beginning to rise. I had selected perhaps the absolute worst time to visit, with the brightest moon rising just as night fell.
Well, there are other things to do in San Pedro. One you won’t find in the guidebooks (hot tip!) is to fall ill and try to find Tums in a local pharmacy. They’ve never heard of them, and goodness if it turns out you can’t find them anywhere on the continent. So, instead of lying under the heavens, we took it easy, sat with the polite street dogs, and enjoyed the square.
Not that my side quest stopped me from noodling-slash-obsessing over the stars. The second day, after consulting the admittedly blameless moon chart, I realized something.
“I have an idea,” I said to Ruby.
After less cajoling than I thought would be needed, we went to a bike rental shop. It, like everything else in San Pedro, was owned by an Atacaman family who’d found a niche. The thirty or so bikes showed the wear of being ridden through the desert every day for years. We explained to the owner that we needed to rent two bikes for just the next eighteen hours, that is, overnight. Yes, we said, we knew that it’d be outside normal rental times. Yes, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to see either the landscape, with no real ambient light, and yes, nor the stars, with way too much light. But really, the owner didn’t put up much of a fight, since we’d be taking the bikes for a period when there’d be no other demand for them. No hay problema, he said.
Next, Ruby went to a market to get supplies for our journey: unpackaged nuts, fresh fruit, bottled water. I stayed behind and willed the last of my nausea away while I planned out a route. Really, any direction from San Pedro takes you into the desert, but I planned to go out toward the Valley of the Moon (which we never actually visited) so that we’d have fewer passing cars. We were all set.
At three thirty in the morning our alarms went off. We’d managed just a few hours’ sleep, a deficit that would normally be a disaster for the guy who brings his sleep mask and ear plugs everywhere he goes, but I was too excited. We slipped on our pre-assembled packs and mounted our bikes under the bright full moon, whose light obviated the need for the flashlights we’d packed. We rode through the quiet village’s dirt roads toward the paved “highway” that led out of town. Occasionally a car would pass, but the only ones who really noticed our presence were the stray dogs that would bark playfully or run alongside us on the road for a dozen yards.
At a traffic circle, two dozing dogs roused themselves and trotted over to us. Never slowing down, we greeted them.
“Hey guys! Buenos dias! Up for an early morning jog? We’re going pretty far,” Ruby cautioned them. They didn’t seem to mind at first, pacing along with us. We weren’t straining ourselves, but the dogs definitely had to run to keep up. After maybe a hundred yards, one of the two decided that whatever it was wasn’t worth it. The second, though, kept at it.
“You’re really determined, aren’t you, buddy?” I asked him. No response.
We pedaled out of the town proper and onto a paved two-lane road, what counts as a highway in mostly-empty deserts around the world. Even though the moon was bright enough to light our path, as we got out of town and away from the oasis-watered trees the sky opened up and uncountable pinpricks became visible, as if the darkness were a loosely-woven blanket that shielded us against some ancient and unfathomable power that shone from somewhere behind the universe.
The road crested a small hill and turned to run parallel to the mountain ridge a half mile the northwest, slightly above which nestled the moon, shining to the southeast, where another, more distant mountain ridge was plainly visible. The dog kept pace the whole time.
¨I guess we made a friend. What’s his name?” asked Ruby. It’s easy to make friends with an animal, all you have to do is name it. Admittedly, at times they do not realize that the two of you are friends, but naming something reserves for it forever a small place in your world.
“Well, he’s definitely a runner. Nike?” I suggested.
“Like the god, you mean,” Ruby said.
“Like the god.”
Nike followed us for three miles, when we decided we were “far enough” from San Pedro to lay out our blanket. It was about a quarter to five when we sat down and opened our packs for breakfast. We put some water on a plate for Nike and fed him dried fruit as we waited. The very tops of the mountains behind us met the bottom of the moon.
“You ready?” I asked Ruby. She hugged Nike in her lap.
The moon set at 5:02 am on March 7, 2020, in the Atacama Desert, and the hidden depth and texture of the cosmos swelled into view. The firmament disappeared, no longer was there a shell with holes. Instead there was the breathing, multicolored everything, the ripples of whose muscles you could surely feel, could you only reach. The Milky Way was no longer a pale smear across the sky but a glowing white ribbon, the stars so close together that you couldn’t distinguish one from another.
“Wow,” we said.