I didn’t see the stars until I was 9 years old. Sure, I’d seen the hazy orange headstones of stars on clear nights, one or two of them, flickering faintly and indistinguishable from planes. But I’d never really seen stars. The kind that make you look up from the sidewalk as you walk home. The kind that drift into dust across the Milky Way. I’d never been offered the full scale and magnitude of the sky.
Then, in 1999, my dad was stationed aboard the USS Constellation, and had spent six months stationed in the middle of the Persian Gulf. At the end of his deployment, the Navy held the Tiger Cruise, a program where the children of the sailors could join their parents in Hawaii, then sail all the way back to San Diego aboard one of the largest and most powerful ships in the world. Surely there was some kind of propaganda behind it, a way to impress children and entice them to join the Navy one day. I wouldn’t know. I had my head buried in a Gameboy the entire time, desperately trying to to catch whatever Pokemon were new at the time. I spent most of the trip in my dad’s cabin. It wasn’t that I was necessarily shy, or unappreciative. I simply wasn’t present.
Then, midway through the week, the crew called everybody to the deck and asked us to sit down. I was with my dad, being forced to leave my Gameboy downstairs, and I remember the anger I felt for that heinous crime. The kind of anger only a child can summon before ever experiencing a true wrongdoing. And then my world went black.
There was no warning before the Captain turned off all the lights on the boat. We were somewhere in the middle of the ocean, where be dragons, the nearest light coming from the bioluminescence of the monsters of the deep. There was no sound but the gentle rocking of the waves below and the occasional rubbery scrape of somebody’s shoe against the deck, echoing out into the void. I rubbed my eyes. Gradually, the outlines of ship and horizon began to render. And then more. Though the moon was black that night, I could see light coming into focus, winking into view one after the other, and I realized they were stars.
More stars than I’d ever seen before. Eventually, as my eyes adjusted, I came to see that there were nearly as many stars as there were splotches of the dark, until the whole of the sky took on more of a gray tone, blending together except at the massive gash that was the Milky Way. There was nothing around me but everything. In the shadow of all that space, I may as well have never existed at all.
The lesson was fleeting, just like most lessons I learned as a kid. Below deck, I went right back to my Gameboy, and I put that sky out of my mind for a good long while. But it stuck with me, against the odds, that one vision of the sky among all the views I took in across all the places I’ve been. The night sky is everywhere, but you’ll take it for granted until you see it the way it was meant to be seen. Free of light pollution. Free of interference.
I’ve sought out the darkest skies I could possibly find. I’ve been drawn to them, from the boulder-strewn desert of Joshua Tree in California to the shadow of Uluru in the Red Center of Australia. Starry skies give us perspective. Such foreign objects force us to evaluate our lives on Earth, which is why so many of us seek to travel in the first place. And while I always find solace in the endless glittering dark, it occurred to me recently how few people have actually had that experience themselves. When the lights went out in Los Angeles in 1994, people began calling 911 in fear of the strange cloud they were seeing in the sky. The cloud was the Milky Way.
When we choose our travel destinations, we base the decision on so many different factors. Price. Language. Culture. Scenery. Everybody wants to see an elephant tromping through the underbrush, and everybody wants to be transformed by the experience, to understand the pithy quotes they see superimposed over pictures of passports on their Instagram feeds every day.
So many of those pictures, from the biggest wanderlust-inspiring accounts, feature photoshopped pictures highlighting the Milky Way to a cartoonish level, as if it were the only way to make the scenery stand out. And yet, when we look at these pictures, we only get a hollow effect. The sky is beautiful in tandem with the earth it hovers above, but because it shares the podium, we can’t devote a full attention to one or the other. It rarely crosses your mind that you don’t necessarily need to travel to another continent to see what you’re really after. In the end, you can’t do much but think, “that’s pretty,” before double tapping the picture and scrolling down.
So the next time you feel that tug, think about where it’s really pulling you. Don’t overlook one aspect of your destination that will give you the best opportunity for introspection. Look for a location with a Dark Sky. You might find looking at other planets more fulfilling than looking at different parts of your own.
How to Find a Dark Sky
There are a few conditions necessary for seeing the Milky Way as clearly as possible. First of all, it needs to be away from cities. This may seem obvious, but light pollution extends further than you’d think, and even a little bit of it can cause your eyes to adjust. This is why Joshua Tree, despite being one of my favorite places on Earth, isn’t necessarily optimal for stargazing (though it’s better than most). It still picks up light from Palm Springs and Twentynine Palms. You also need to watch out for air pollution. It thickens the air and makes it more difficult to see. This is another reason Joshua Tree doesn’t work: the Coachella Valley acts as a funnel bringing smog from Los Angeles inland.
The best places to see the Dark Sky, then, are the vast inland areas – deserts and steppes – that feature little human habitation, little humidity, and little obstructions like jungle or cliffs. Here are a few good options, if you’re in the area.
- Aoraki Dark Sky Reserve isn’t the best option, but I had the pleasure of camping there for a few nights. There’s nothing like seeing the Small Magellanic Cloud (a small galaxy) sitting on the rim of the Milky Way from the roof of your car.
- Uluru should be one of the best places in the world for stargazing, seeing as it’s so far inland, away from humidity and pollution. The desert is always a gorgeous place to go. However, it’s also one of the most visited places in Australia, and the necessary infrastructure introduces a little bit of light.
- Death Valley is one of the darkest places in America. Racetrack Playa is the posterchild of a milky way photo.
- The Mongolian Steppe is one of the flattest, most open places on Earth, and since it’s populated mainly by nomads, you’re basically guaranteed a lack of light pollution.
- The dunes of the Sahara are dry and clear, but the area has a fair bit of unrest. The best place to see the stars in the area would be Morocco, near Merzouga.