Now, I’m not going to do this experience justice. I’m not going to be able to describe the feelings and visuals, but I’m hoping it’ll be enough to maybe connect or convince someone enough to seek this sight for themselves.
Have you ever seen the stars? And I’m not talking about the few speckles in the sky at dusk, the one or two dots holding the Big Dipper constellation together. I’m saying, have you ever seen the stars? Seen dozens of constellations mapping the night sky? Drawn a line from those two dots in the Big Dipper right to Polaris, the North Star? Have you ever seen the Milky Way stretching and shattering? Have you ever seen the planets, shooting stars with their tails streaking across the sky? Have you ever seen the ISS floating along a sea of stars, distinguishing it from other satellites scattered here and there? Have you ever seen the feathered fingers of nebulas? Seen the fuzzy ball of our neighboring galaxy through the lens of a telescope, or even with the naked eye?
If you haven’t, it’s very much a view worth traveling for.
I’ve been going to star parties since I was a kid, observing the stars with my dad in the backyard. I can remember begging my mom to let me go to the observatory with my dad when I was little. Knowing it was going to be late when we got back, but using the excuse that it was a weekend night to reassure her there wouldn’t be school the next morning to wake up early for. The excitement was palpable when she’d say yes, and no complaints were mumbled when I’d have to share the backseat of my dad’s car with his telescope.
We’d travel the several miles to an observatory tucked away from the town, just as the sun was starting to dip beyond the horizon. Sometimes there would be others atop this hill, a large white observation dome sitting almost out of place among the trees; their own telescopes set up and already pointed toward the sky, awaiting those first stars.
I’d help my dad as much as I could with his own telescope, otherwise setting up a couple of lawn chairs we’d bring and plopping myself down with the multitude of layers and blankets I’d bring along. Then, once the sun would set completely the stars would start to pop out, one by one, and my dad would have his star chart handy as the telescope would chirp to life. Punching into the telescope’s remote the names of stars, nebulas, planets - anything that would be out and shining above; the machine would whirr slowly to M13, M15, M30, on and on. My dad would call me over when he’d finally had the object in question centered in the telescope lens, and I’d eagerly burst from the layers keeping me warm on the lawn chair. When I was younger, I even remember my dad having to lift me to see into the lens, depending on the angle of the telescope; and I’d marvel at the puffball amongst the scatter of other blurry specks - trying to wrap my young mind around the fact that I was looking at a nebula, a planet, a star cluster.
All of these things lightyears away, almost all of this fuzzy light coming from a source already dead and long gone.
Those memories are some of my favorites from when I was a kid. At the same observatory, sometimes my mom and younger sister would also tag along, and as the three of us would wait for my dad to find something for us to see - my sister and I would dance around, run around, play silly games, anything to help keep us from getting cold so late at night. Sometimes, on those warmer nights, we’d beg my dad for a quarter - scuffing our shoes down the gravel driveway of this observatory to a neighboring building that proved to be a safe haven on the really cold nights. Tables and chairs were strewn about with a fridge stocked with drinks and snacks. My sister and I always grabbing cans of Diet Coke for everyone and paying our dues in the small collection bucket for the drinks.
And while these nights were fun and memorable, quick bouts under the stars and views of familiar constellations just barely seen over the trees; they weren’t the memories I still experience and make to this day.
Even then, at that small observatory on the hill; I’d see the stars, and a few comets, learning each grouping that made up a constellation, and a nebula or two. I’d even be lucky to see Saturn or Venus on those nights. But, I still wasn’t seeing the stars.
Star parties are sort of exactly what they sound like. However, when people ask me what I’m doing over the weekend, or why I’m going to be out of the office, I still tell them “I’m going camping”. Then, when they ask where I always feel like I also need to describe why my family is camping where we are.
The Black Forest, Cherry Springs National Park in Pennsylvania - about three to four hours north of where my family lives. It’s not a typically common place where people say they’ll go to camp, especially when PA also has the Poconos. Cherry Springs, however, has finally been recognized and labeled as an (amateur) astronomer’s viewing and camping site. But, I always feel the need to say why we’re traveling to such a remote location where no towns, no light pollution, and nothing is in quick access. If you want to go to town for something, get ready to travel twelve miles.
Tucked away between the trees of the Black Forest, no light pollution means a damn-near perfectly clear sky. These events are also during the New Moon as well, with no light from the moon to douse the sky in reflected light. Sometimes we’re lucky, and the sky remains clear with no clouds or rain to threaten our view. Other times, we’re not as lucky, and the trip itself is ruined by a few stubborn clouds or cut short due to unbearably cold temperatures and rain.
This recent trip was rare in that we were able to stay both weekend nights - debating on end if the few wispy clouds rolling in the second night were going to cost us the night or not - only to be surprised to find these clouds barely hindered the stars to flood the sky and my dad in his ability to find amazing things for us to view.
I mean, come on, being able to see the beauty of Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s amazing red bands, the sun and its solar flares, and the Andromeda galaxy in the same weekend? Hard to beat.
But, what is a star party? I’m providing images of what we all see, but who is “we”?
My dad used to be a part of an amateur astronomer's association, I’m not sure if he is anymore, but the common type you can find at these events range from amateur astronomers to those who have been going to these for years, to astrophotographers, students, on and on. You have families, you have those who have seven-foot tall telescopes or two-foot tall, and those who are there just for the fun of camping and love viewing what others are able to find. People of all ages who prefer the traditional method of camping with tents, or those who love their RV’s and campers. As long as you have your red lights in your campers and to guide you over cables strewn about in the grass and to the bathrooms, all are welcome.
These star parties last the weekend, some arriving the Thursday before and some staying until the Monday after. My family usually goes up on Fridays and stays until that Sunday, getting a good two nights - if we’re lucky. It’s a relaxed event where you stake down home wherever you’re able to find room amongst the other tents, telescopes, and campers. Most will set up everything when they get there, or wait until the sun starts to set - like my dad. But, there are typically food vendors at the event where meals are provided all day and during the day, you’re free. Free from the internet, free from (good) cell service, free to relax or walk amongst the trees and soak in the fresh air and nature around you. Then, when night falls, you set up and start searching the sky for some of the most wonderous things and stay up until the sun rises again, or until the weight of your eyes is too much to bear. However, even as you wake early in the morning, at three a.m. or five a.m., expect to still see the sky dark and stars shining in abundance above.
It’s a wonderfully quiet and secluded experience up in the Black Forest, where memories are made with family, where we bundle in sweaters and blankets with hot chocolate or coffee between our gloved hands. Where we sit and snack on freshly popped popcorn in the dead of night, the familiar whirring of a telescope next to us as my dad checks his star chart and punches in the number to the next nebula or planet. Cracking jokes and creating new names for certain stars or speckled clusters - the Wild Duck Cluster is now the “Cluster Duck”.
Yes, it can get cold during the second star party of the year up at Cherry Springs. Yes, nights can be rough as you struggle to keep warm, realizing you probably should have brought that extra blanket and yearning for the day your socks are finally dry from the dew of numerous late-night bathroom treks. While the food might not be all that great, and the coffee served in Best Western cups - tasting as if it came from hotel room K-cups as well, the peace and quiet of the environment is enough to make the trip worth it, the stars alone make the whole thing absolutely worth it.
This most recent trip, however, was my first since 2016. Needless to say, I was highly anticipating this star party and hoping we were going to have a nice enough weekend to stay both nights and see a clear sky each time. Saturday night, things got a little sketchy with a few wispy clouds rolling in and my parents debating on whether we should pack up and leave while it was still light. Would it even be worth staying the night if the clouds were going to block the sky and essentially ruin the night? However, as the time started passing us by, it started to get late enough that by the time we’d leave it’d be dark for a majority of the commute home - something my mom wasn’t super thrilled about. So, we decided to stay that night and took a stroll around the camping grounds to see who was still here, who was going to stay and brave the clouds, hoping they’d pass.
Of course, by nine p.m. that night, the stars started to pop and the Milky Way started stretching across the sky - no clouds seriously obscuring the view and my dad finally made the decision to set up his telescope again.
We had half-packed everything that night, just in case if we decided to leave we could easily pile everything into the car and tear down the tent within minutes. But, I couldn’t have been happier to unpack my sleeping bag and roll out all my blankets again for the night - dawning comfier clothes and ready myself for another night of gazing up at the sky.
And as I stood there - refusing to sit to keep myself from getting cold - staring up at the sky; I couldn’t but have a sort of internal “crisis”. Because it feels like you’re just looking up at a ceiling. Looking up to a dark sky that feels like you can just reach a hand up and barely brush your fingertips against Earth’s ceiling. The stars are speckled against the black paint, glowing in the dark and sparkling with the Milky Way appearing as if it was sponge painted against a dark matte surface. It does not feel like you’re looking up into, essentially, an abyss. An eternal abyss with each fuzzy light hundreds, thousands, millions of years old from a star that very well could have died already. An eternal abyss that holds a past we can barely begin to fathom. That holds other galaxies, black holes, other planets, other life?
At this point, I needed to stop and take a few sips of my hot chocolate to rest my neck and sanity.
It’s something I’ve recently been experiencing at these star parties, thoughts I’m remembering better after each trip, the feeling of being so small and yet a part of something so much larger at the same time.
The Milky Way you see in those photos is only a small section of the entire thing, and yet it’s (a part of) the largest thing I’ll probably ever see in my life. I saw the gorgeous rings of Saturn that weekend, along with Jupiter’s striking red bands and its own four moons through such a small lens - and yet both those planets are also so much larger than Earth - one of them even being entirely made of gas! It’s hard to not be in complete awe. And while my iPhone 14 does a pretty damn-good job at taking photos at night with only an exposure of thirty seconds to capture these images, it absolutely does not compare to seeing this sight in person.
Unfortunately, this is something I don’t get to see every year - it’s been seven years since I even last went to a star party. My family tried to go last year, but my dad got rained out and left before I had even made it home to my parents from where I live. I don’t even see the moon often enough as it rises behind a grouping of trees just outside my apartment windows. This year’s star party was not only special in that I got to go camping with my family and spend an entire weekend outside from the soul-sucking routine of the modern everyday; I finally got to experience my childhood memories again. Appreciate an event I always took for granted when I was younger because it was more frequent in my life then.
And I can only hope it becomes a revived trip within my family, a view I can anticipate seeing once again.
About the Creator
Young, living - thriving? Writing every emotion, idea, or dream that intrigues me enough to put into a long string of words for others to absorb - in the hopes that someone relates, understands, and appreciates.