Camping Leaves Me Starstruck

When I told friends my fiancé and I were driving to the Florida Keys for an astronomers’ star party, their still-thawing bodies twittered with envy.

“Awesome!” they said at the thought of hundreds of telescopes along the beach. “But why drive?”

“Can’t fly,” I said. “Not with two scopes and all that camping gear.”

The last two words drew a gasp.  “You?  Really?”

“Apparently you’re not seen as a camper,” my Stargazer finally said. “When was your last time?”

“Oh, I like to camp,” I said, with as much conviction as I could muster, and tried to calculate exactly when my daughter, now 25, dropped out of Girl Scouts. I know it was right after I chaperoned her last camping trip.

“I know there are adjustments,” I said, “like waking up too terrified to go to the latrine alone. But hey. That clear starry sky is calling me.”

For extra assurance, Stargazer swore that the giant grinning gator I found among last year’s pictures was taken somewhere else and put me in touch with a local woman who attends the party each year.

“You’ll be fine as long as you’re not put off by creepy crawly things,” she said.

“No problem,” I lied. The forecast here was 10 below.

With that, Stargazer began the week-long process of pre-packing his Prius. He pitched the living room size tent indoors to make sure it had all the parts and folded it back impressively into a shoebox-size duffle.

“Great!” he said. “That leaves room for the rest.”  That is, a telescope the size of R2D2, a smaller bazooka-size “grab ‘n go” scope, two giant tackle boxes of eyepieces, two air mattresses, two sleeping bags, two suitcases of hotel clothes, two camp tables, two duffles of camp clothes, and a mid-size cooler .

I looked on shivering (15 below?) and hoped the passenger seat would remain free for me.  Miraculously, it did.

All was well till it was time to pitch the tent at Camp Wesumkee along the Atlantic Ocean.

“Those mango trees should give us some shade,” said Stargazer, driving stakes into the sandy loam. It seemed ungrateful to complain about the nearly 90-degree heat, so I restricted my comments to gratitude that our tent had come complete with a floor.

“That will probably keep the ants out, don’t you think?”

He said it probably would, so I decided not to mention the little hills I’d noticed under the now-looming structure. Who needs a kill joy?

I went on, with the help of my next-tent neighbor, to locate the showers, the porta potties, and the single regular toilet available to women near our site.

“It’s good to know where they are in the daylight,” she explained.

Although she did not say so, it was good to know because most of the women’s facilities were at the far end of the campground, and regular flashlights are taboo.

“They interfere with the imagers,” Stargazer warned. “They get very upset if they’re taking pictures of stars and a white light goes on.”

To his credit, Stargazer gave me a non-interfering red headlight to wear on nighttime adventures. Unfortunately, I had to go through a flash of white light to get to the red light to get to the bathroom.

“Just cover it up when it flashes,” he said.

He failed to add,  “Don’t fall over a telescope chair when you forget and they all start yelling at you.”

On the whole, though, the celestial experience was just that. The clear, starry skies were unlike anything we see with our cloud cover and city lights. After four nights of tent camping, I, like Crosby, Stills and Nash, was able to see the Southern Cross for the very first time. I was even able to identify the Big Dipper every time I looked.

As for the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Eskimo nebula, and the closest star to earth, picked out by astronomers all around me, I took their word for it.

After failing headlight class, I was nervous to notice that R2D2 was in my passenger seat all during the pre-packing for the trip home. Eventually, though, he was looking out the rear window and I was facing forward.

Itching. But it could have been worse, I hear, for fire ants.

Copyright 2014 Pat Snyder

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