14 April 2012

Stars and Miscalculations

In March of 2002, The Mate and I climbed Springer Mountain in Georgia, the start of a week of packpacking. We were carrying minimal gear because we were also carrying video camera, batteries, tape, and sound equipment, and interviewing people setting off to hike the Appalachian Trail. Plus, March in Georgia; it would be significantly warmer than March in New York.

Overnight, the temperature dropped; we lay shivering in our tent and awoke to snow. Worse, we'd left muddy boots outside the tent, and there was nothing for it but to shove our feet in them and just keep moving forward while they thawed out. It was an uncomfortable morning.

The eventual result was a documentary, 2000 Miles to Maine.

I thought of that night last night while I lay shivering in a tent yet again. This time, it was a forecast for unseasonably warm weather, plus a bum shoulder; the mate was carrying most of the gear to a camp site not too far off a road, so we left a lot behind.

After hiking in short sleeves, we sat down to a cold dinner and some paper grading via iPad. The temperature was dropping rapidly, so we soon retreated into the tent, where we continued to get colder and colder. Eventually, the iPad (unimagined in '02) told us that the overnight low for the town we were camping in was expected to be 29 degrees.

Whoops.

When the dog started shivering, I brought him inside my sleeping bag with me, but even then I couldn't warm up. I slept fitfully, spending the wakeful hours listening for birdsong, which would tell me dawn was near.

Eventually, I got up to take a leak, and I looked up at the night sky, and was transfixed.

The Manhattan sky at night looks flat, a glassy surface with a couple of visible planets and a few dim pinpricks of starlight.

Last night, I looked up at the sky that our ancestors saw before the invention of electricity. It's a deep sky, scattered across with innumerable stars of varying brightness at different distances. I was looking at light a million years old and more.

Then, an owl, close by and startling, letting us know we were trespassing in its territory.

And instantly I knew that by morning the cold wouldn't matter. What would: stars across unfathomable distance and an owl in the darkness.