The Darkest, Starriest Skies

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Every night of the six-week backpacking trip I took through the backcountry wilderness trails of Montana and northwest Wyoming I slept in a tent with a friend – except two. Those two nights still stand out in my mind as they were both unique and adventurous, but in very different ways. We were a group of twelve students and backpackers who had signed up for a combination ecology course and backpacking trip (four separate backpacking trips to be precise) during the summer of 1990. We shared tents, water, food and equipment, so no one went without the basics. We supplied our own clothing for obvious reasons.

The first night we slept without tents was during the third week of our wilderness adventure. It was a warm, quiet night somewhere in rural Montana. Our six-week trip was split into four separate backpacking trips, each of varying lengths. We had just returned from our second backpacking trip, a five-night trek into Montana’s Bitterroot Wilderness. We followed our instructor’s lead and hiked up and down steep mountain terrain where the trails were barely visible beneath our hiking boots. We never lost the trail and our two instructors, Mary Beth and John, carried USGS maps of wilderness areas they were already familiar with. Upon re-entering civilization, we were usually dirty, smelly, unkempt, and in desperate need of real showers. In the backcountry, we bathed (with or without biodegradable soap) in the nearest river or lake. Upon leaving the wilderness, we took care of personal hygiene, restocked our food supplies, and found dinner. This particular evening, rather than setting up camp at the nearest campground, we simply pulled off the side of the highway and found a place to park. Since we had come down out of the mountains and were in closer proximity to civilization, there was an absence of both mosquitoes and dangerous wildlife that made it safer for us to sleep under the stars that night. It was a special night for all of us.

The sun had already set as we clambered out of the white, Dodge van the UC Extension program had lent us for the trip. I jumped out the van’s back double doors and grabbed my sleeping bag, following fellow backpackers Mark and Elizabeth across the parking lot to an open field. There were a few trees lining the parking lot, but not much else. A river ran a dark course a few hundred yards behind us, and I could hear its soft gurgling as we arranged our sleeping bags in a few long rows. It was late and we were tired. I shoved a t-shirt and a pair of shorts into a small stuff sack to use as a pillow, zipped myself into my purple sleeping bag, and lay on my back staring at the multitude of twinkling stars overhead. We were hypnotized by the thousands of tiny, glimmering points of light in the night sky above us as one by one we drifted off to sleep.

The night reminded me of an afternoon science class I had with UC Santa Cruz professor, Dr. Jim Pepper. During one lesson, Dr. Pepper described a place in Northern California where you could look up at night and see the darkest, starriest skies. I was mesmerized listening to his voice as I sat in my movie-theater type chair, slightly reclined, and imagined what that night sky might look like – thousands of bright, glistening stars overhead set against a backdrop of inky blackness that stretched on forever. This was that beautiful night. The night we slept under the stars, mid-summer, somewhere in Montana. The night with the darkest, starriest skies.

darkest starriest skies

The only other night we slept without our tents was our “solo night.” During the last of our four backpacking trips, we each had to go off on our own and spend one night by ourselves in the wilderness. Our instructors picked our third night out of the last, six-night trip in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The solo night was part of the ecology course, and we received college credit for successfully completing the required coursework. We also carried a few small course books and a journal in our backpacks, along with our camping equipment, clothes and food.

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Our assignment was not as easy as it sounds. The instructors, Mary Beth and John, were very straightforward with us. After dinner, we each had to hike far enough away from their base camp so that we could not see or hear them, or each other. We were to hike through the forest, pick a spot, spend time writing a journal entry, and finish the brief animal-study report that was also required for the course. We were not allowed to pair up for the night or to form groups. To get credit for the ecology course, we were required to spend the entire night away from camp – alone.

I was nervous. I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but as soon as I started hiking away from our instructors’ base camp and the rest of the group, I realized how quiet the forest was when no other people are nearby. People seem to make more noise than any other creature. I hiked for a few minutes, but I didn’t go very far. I hiked just far enough to make sure I was out of sight and sound of our base camp and the rest of my backpacking companions. I found shelter under one of the larger, taller pine trees, and sat down to write with my back propped up against the tree for support. I listened for a few minutes, but I couldn’t hear anything or anyone else around me – only the silence found in the absence of people talking, the absence of civilization – of car horns and traffic, of television and radio, of all the noises that make up our people-filled world. A few birds chirped, and a slight breeze rustled the leaves in the trees above me, but that was all I heard that night. My soul found little comfort in the tall, silent pine tree I had chosen to lean up against. The forest obscured the night sky, and I couldn’t see any stars. I felt very much alone.

Fortunately, I survived the night and was extremely grateful to return to my instructors and my camping buddies early the next morning. I realized then that I never wanted to live as a hermit. As shy and introverted as I was, I would always desire the company of other people. Nature, however, still provides me with the thrill of a wilderness adventure, even near my current suburban home.

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