A Visit to a Dark Sky

By, Alexandra Nachman

The sun dropped behind the mountains that held the cliff dwellings quickly, throwing the valley into shade. I had on just a tank top, but returned to my truck and grabbed a jacket. As a native Phoenician, I was used to hot temperatures, and quickly grew cold. The setup for the event began at 5:00 p.m. and I pulled out the decorations for our table; a space themed tablecloth, plushies, brochures, gifts for the visitors. I would be representing the International Dark-Sky Association Phoenix Area Chapter with a table that would hold a children’s activity and information about our initiative. I eagerly awaited the dark sky and as I walked back to the parking lot to grab something from my truck, the mountains in the distance caught my eye. They were lit up from the setting sun, their blue-grey rock lit up in purple and pink as the sun crested ever lower on the horizon. My heart skipped a joyful beat and I walked quickly to my truck now, grabbing my camera from it and positioning myself to capture the image. After taking a few photos, I stood in awe, watching the mountain slowly turn grey again before the clouds above caught my eye. They changed from orange to pink and I put my camera to use once more.

Sunset at Tonto National Monument
Image credit: Alexandra Nachman

Dark came quickly after that and I returned to my table to await our first visitors as the park rangers finished helping the other vendors set up. By 5:30 p.m., people began driving up, wandering over. By 6:00 p.m., the benches in front of the tables were filling up. An introduction was given by a Tonto National Monument park ranger, Christa Sadler. The event I was eagerly helping with was to celebrate Tonto National Monument’s International Dark Sky Park designation. Presentations kicked off the event and she introduced Adam Dalton, the lead of IDA’s Dark Sky Places program as the first one. He gave a wonderful presentation on what the IDA is and how Tonto had been bestowed with this wonderful designation. The next speaker, a park ranger named Rader Lane, showed a moving video from his Night Spoken video series. This series showcased a deep connection with the night sky made from visitors at the Grand Canyon Star Party. After trying to hold back my tears for the entire length of the video, I lifted my eyes to the heavens and noted the stars. Already more vivid and bright than the sky in my city almost two hours away, I sought out my favorite constellation: Orion. The tears that pricked at the corner of my eyes slowly evaporated and the edge in my heart was softened. I had known of this constellation since I was a kid and even in my light polluted city’s night sky, those bright stars that formed the shape of an ancient hunter always stood out to me. Even with the amount of light pollution Phoenix has currently, even when the sky was a hazy dark grey with only the brightest stars peeking through, it was an unwavering reminder that the stars still did exist.

The stars rise over the valley of Tonto National Monument. Can you spot Orion?
Image credit: Alexandra Nachman

In the dark skies of this National Monument, other fainter stars had appeared. The Big Dipper stood large on the horizon, close to the Earth. The faint line of the winter Milky Way sliced across the western horizon as Cassiopeia shone brightly in line with it. And somewhere, just above Cassiopeia, the Andromeda galaxy hovered – big enough and close enough to be seen with the naked eye, but only when the sky is black. The galaxy was positioned on the western horizon, where the sun had set. The horizon never grew completely dark though, instead shining with a faint white glow: sky glow from the huge city of Phoenix. Light pollution. The thing we were spending the night trying to escape from.

The rest of the night was a wonderful blur of connecting with people and hearing their connections to the night sky. The event was kept dark with only red lights to guide us. Fear melted away. Wonder and awe took its place. Quiet, murmured conversations between visitors as they discussed the constellations and talked with the amateur astronomers and the rangers. Eighty-five people from the surrounding small towns, Phoenix, and other areas had gathered in this special place to connect with the sites that so few of us get to see anymore: the stars, the stories they tell, and the wonderful connection we feel to the Earth and the Universe as their light shines gently down on us. It was a wonderful night and one that touched my heart deeply.

Interested in viewing the Night Spoken series? Follow the link here: https://www.nps.gov/grca/learn/photosmultimedia/night-spoken-series.htm

Winter Quarter Meeting

TelescopePhoto_1
Image credit: Alexandra Nachman

Come join us for the winter quarter meeting at South Mountain Environmental Education Center on January 4th, 2020! Located at South Mountain Park and Preserve in Phoenix, AZ, we will be hosted by the South Mountain Astronomy Club. 2020 is a new year and the IDA Phoenix Area Chapter has many new wonderful and exciting things coming up! There will be a telescope viewing after the meeting if weather permits.

View our agenda for the meeting and location information here: IDA Phoenix Area Chapter Winter Agenda