Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

I am very sorry, sir, I am behind my time...

It's only once a year, sir, it shall not be repeated.  I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.

Bob Cratchit from Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott.  One of my favorite versions of the classic Christmas tale. 

Happy New Year!  Like Bob Cratchit, I am behind my time (by a day) and was making rather merry yesterday.  And in the process of welcoming 2014, I discovered something amazing.

For many years I have extolled the virtues of getting away from people to enjoy the sky.  Well, more specifically, people's lights.  The city is a terrible place to do astronomy...few stars can be seen, and finding a spot with open sky can prove challenging to say the least.  So I often recommend that folks go somewhere else to see the stars.  Areas with little population (Casper Mountain in Wyoming has astounding skies!), the desert southwest of the United States (my Dad, who loved to hike the Grand Canyon, bought a tent with a special skylight in it for stargazing...he said the sky from down in the canyon was the most incredible thing he'd ever seen), out on the water far away from shore (but not on most cruise ships, which are lit up like bonfires), and other such far away destinations have been my suggestion to people looking to see more of the sky than they usually do.

Or, you could drive about an hour west of Richmond.  No, really!

We generally spend New Year's Eve in a cabin at Bear Creek Lake State Park.  It's wonderful to get away from it all (there's no cell service or internet out there either!) and just enjoy some time with family and friends.  Most years, the sky has been cloudy...especially if I go through the trouble of packing my telescope.  This year, I said the heck with it, and left it home.

On New Year's Eve night we went out to build a fire and make s'mores (always a hit with the kids).  My friend suddenly said "Hey, look at the Milky Way!"

I looked up and almost fell over.

The sky was cold and clear and the air unmoving.  It was deep black, and spangled everywhere with stars so bright they seemed to leap out of the sky at me.  Jupiter shone like a beacon...for a moment, I was disoriented...I thought it was Venus, it seemed so bright to me!  As my eyes adjusted, I could see more and more faint stars playing in the background of the sky...and indeed, the lovely swath of the Milky Way, arcing high above us.  I wasted no time bemoaning my lack of a telescope - I simply took my daughter aside and we looked for constellations.  We spotted a couple of satellites and caught a few meteors in the bargain.  It was breathtaking, delightful, dizzying, and altogether awesome.

So here's my recommendation to you for a new year's resolution - make a reservation and stay at a State or National Park near you sometime this year.  You probably won't have to even travel very far!  Many parks offer traditional camping (bring your own tent) or cabins for rent (very reasonably priced, and come with all the comforts of home like heat, AC, and indoor plumbing!).  Some even have yurts (I hear they can be tons of fun!).  You can make reservations online at Reserve America.  It's great way to get some time away, bond with family and friends, explore your local area, and rediscover the sky.  Trust me, you'll love it.

One of the cabins at Bear Creek Lake State Park in Virginia.  Yes, it's as awesome as it looks.  Image by Tracey Shaffer courtesy Reserve America.

Here's hoping that 2014 is truly a stellar year for us all.
See you in two weeks, and until then...
Carpe Noctem!

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