On Thursday morning as we drove north and east, we had a copy of USA Today with us. It's something we read only when we travel, because often the places we stay give us a copy for free, and there's a crossword. One article, "Ten Great Places to Stargaze," we loved, partly because it told us something new--that there is an international organization dedicated, as it says, to "preserve the night"--and partly because we love stargazing and dark skies in which to gaze at them. It is, in fact, one of the reasons we love going north, to places where the skies are dark and the most reliable newspaper is USA Today.
We talked about it again tonight over pizza. Some of the places mentioned in the article which are working to certify their dark skies--like Cedar Breaks--are eminently possible for us to visit. Others aren't out of the realm of possibility--Borrego Springs, Big Bend National Park, Glacier National Park. Earlier that day, we had traveled to the north entrance of Yellowstone, into the little town of Gardiner. We reminded ourselves that Mammoth, only five miles from the north entrance, is the park headquarters, and learned that there's a structure called the Roosevelt Arch marking the entrance, commemorating the fact that Theodore Roosevelt was a passionate advocate of the idea of national parks. We learned that the north part of the park--Gardner Valley, where the Gardner River flows--is a winter range for much of the park's wildlife. But one thing we didn't know was how dark Yellowstone would get at night.
As we walked back to our lodgings, the historian said, "How about we walk right to our car and drive into the park?" This was at about 7:30 or so. "How would that be?"
So we walked right to our car and drove directly into the park. We wondered if the booths at the west entrance would be staffed after dark. Yes, they are. Would the staff give us many cautions about driving through the park after dark? No, they didn't. And how many cars would there be? What kind of light would there be?
The skies were darker than they'd ordinarily be because they were cloudy. But we found a startling number of cars driving out of the park. Hardly any cars coming in, but many leaving.
"It feels so different," I said, as we drove, slowly, on the road lined on either side with what felt like forested walls. One two three four five sets of oncoming headlights passed us. Not exactly unsafe, is how it felt, but not exactly safe either.
"More cars than I would have thought," said the historian.
"It's just data, though. We asked ourselves, 'how many cars will there be in Yellowstone after dark?' and it turns out there are more than we thought," I postulated.
We went as far as a pull out we knew by day, where we could get out of the car and sit by the Madison River. When we turned off the car, the head and taillights went out; the interior lights dimmed, then went dark. We sat on a log and listened to the water. A car went by, on its way to exit at the west entrance. Whoosh of well-engineered internal combustion. Sound that heightened and faded. A few seconds more of the river. More cars. One two three. Then another coming into the park. The trees across the river lit up. It was eerie, we agreed. The car passed, the light passed. More river sound in the dark.
Another phalanx of cars leaving the park. Their headlights caught the surface of the water. "Okay, after this group passes, let's wait for the next car, and after that, we'll go," he said.
The phalanx passed. A few seconds later, another car's lights caught the water. "Maybe wait for the next one after this," he said.
And the dark sky, we loved you even if you were only intermittent, apprehended in the intervals between cars on their way back home.
yours in night preservation,