The Nevada Sky:
The True Story of the Most Majestic Scene in Nature (That Doesn't Contain Nipples)
It was the week of 1-7 September 2013, and I was in Las Vegas with my friend for vacation. While I was there, the big sight I wanted to see was the desert's night sky, where, as countless Google Image results will show, the entire Milky Way can be seen stretching (practically) from horizon to horizon as a scar across the sky. In every other state in the contiguous United States (and certainly a good many hours' driving radius in southern Ontario), the light pollution is so bad that, on average, on a clear night, you can only see a handful of stars – maybe fifty in all, on the right night, in a very dim country area. Out here, they say you can see as many as 7,700.
The timing had to be crucial. There's only about a dozen (at most) nights a year to get a sky shot like that. It has to be at the right time of year, so the Earth is between the sun and the rest of the galaxy. That was summer (hence why I left Canada to come to the Mojave Desert in September). It also had to be during a new moon, because you need there to be nothing else, not even a cellphone's backlight, to pollute the dark with non-stellar light. The new moon itself was 5 September, the Thursday, yet I opted to go on the Wednesday (I figured 1/27th of a moon's sliver wouldn't interfere) because checkout was 11am Friday and I didn't want to be wrecked beyond what was necessary for the flight back to Canada Friday night.
We rented a car while in Las Vegas for this express purpose. The night lights of the city would make stargazing as impossible on the Strip as in New York City. The Internet gave me answers as to the best places to go that were two and half to five hours from the city (in various national parks), yet the people I talked to in Las Vegas merely said fifteen miles out the 93.
On the Wednesday night, just my luck, it rains. Pisses rain. Storm clouds (at least what Nevadans qualify as storm clouds) from horizon to horizon. The desert was supposed to be the safe bet. But, as we were repeatedly told, the rains had been much more precipitous this year than the average. But there were high winds and patches of clear in the distance, so I just hoped that they would clear. So while I waited for the skies to clear, I went to the gun range, four blocks from our hotel, dropped my credit card on the counter and fired off a sniper rifle (that they simply called “the Savage”) and an AK-47 – something you'd never get a chance to do in Canada for so little red tape. It was actually an awesome experience, and I'm not a bad shot for point blank range with a sniper rifle. (The range, of course, played up the machismo of it, and when you first walk in, the receptionist is a twentysomething blonde with a tight body and perky voice, V-neck shirt, short shorts and a pistol in a thigh holster – entirely decorative, I could easily tell.)
Anyway, by the time I got back to the hotel and we went for dinner, the rain had stopped but there was still some overcast, and the sun had completely set, so it was hard to tell just how overcast it was. I went for a walk along the Strip to gauge the sky better, and after about a half hour or so, when I was walking back, I could tell just how sparse the cloud cover was (there was one small cloud and nothing more), so I headed back to the hotel. My friend was already asleep, so I merely grabbed the keys, the camera(s) and snuck back out. After all, the whole reason for renting the car was this, so it would have been a complete waste and I'd have been pissed had I not gone for it.
I stole a map from the closed Hertz desk and headed for the parking garage. It was about 11:15. I took Koval to Spring Mountain Road to the 15/93, got on going towards Salt Lake City. Once you pass North Las Vegas, the limit jumps to 75mph, and I drove for what felt like forever until I saw the junction for the 93. The entire time, you're leaving the valley into the hills and you see a sea of orange and yellow from the city – a glorious sight, but it presented the looming fear that I'd have to drive for a long distance up the 93. The ramp was about the distance of a good size drive thru, coming to a stop sign at the bottom. It was a four-way stop, and a truck appeared at my right before I could see any directional signs, so I went with my mental image of the map and went to my left. There were no identifying highway signs, so I had no idea if I was heading in the right direction. There were no speed limit signs, so I had no idea how fast to go (it was a rural highway, which in Ontario is usually 80kmph, so I chose 55 and locked the cruise).
Immediately there were two power generating stations, one after the other, to my left that were painted in lights, and the one remaining cloud over Las Vegas (or to the south of it, I can't be sure) was illuminated as bright as a white cloud in the day sky. Presently I see a turn off to my right, leading into a gravel or sand pit stop on the side of the road, which I recognized only by the reflection of my headlights off the taillights of a parked car in there, and considered turning around to join him. But, that cloud still loomed immediately to my left, and I figured I didn't want to pull into a lone gravel lot next to a random stranger in the middle of the night, in the middle of the desert. So I kept going, figuring there'd be another one of those gravel or sand turn offs eventually. (Pulling off onto the shoulder was not really an option, as the slope was too steep into the ditch, and the shoulder itself was only really a tire's breadth. I'd need to turn off all my lights in order to see this properly, which meant I'd be hugging the side of the road, inches from being smashed by a wandering truck, as few and far between as they may have been.) I vowed I'd go another ten miles and see how it looked.
It was empty on this highway. And the lights had vanished. So more and more stars were appearing through my windshield, but I still had my high beams on, and knew I didn't have a hope of seeing the “clouds” of endless stars clustered together; didn't have a hope in seeing the scar shape of the galaxy itself until I parked the car. There was a turn in the highway, veering slightly to the right, at which point I watched a truck coming at me for about six or seven minutes before realizing it was a truck's headlights.
The following day we drove up to the junction of the 93 and the 375, where the “Extraterrestrial Highway” begins, and let me tell you this has to be the straightest road I've ever seen. There's about a forty mile stretch that's as straight as straw.
After that truck passed me there was nothing more. The glowing cloud to my left over Vegas was slowly passing to my rear, and I kept my eyes open for another turn off pit stop. One finally came right about ten miles after the first, which would make it about twelve to fifteen miles from the junction with Interstate 15. I overshot it because I didn't see it until I was on top of it, slowed down, did a three-point turn, went back and pulled in. There's a fence that runs along the highway thirty feet or so from the road, which I later came to assume was a wildlife control fence. I swung the car around in this little sand lot, using the headlights to determine the limits of it, then came to a stop, parked the car and removed the key. It takes a second for the headlights and the dome light to go off, and you have to open the door to get the dash lights and the radio to go dark, so I stepped out of the car as the headlights finally went dim.
It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust fully, but I wasn't completely blind to what lay above me. There it was, clusters and clouds, a spattering of stars from horizon to horizon. The cloud over Vegas was far in the distance and I had the entire night sky illuminated above me.
And I mean illuminated. The terrain around me was black as pitch. You couldn't see even an inch outside the limits of your high beams when on the road, not a single highway light or another vehicle as far as the eye could see. And they could see pretty far. This was a flat desert with no humidity, perfect visibility, the clear air of the Nevada plateau and the outline of mountains in the distance in any direction. It was impossible to determine how far away they were. The follow day I discovered they were, indeed, on the far horizon, and the entire sky – a sight so panoramic as to astound the imagination – was streaked with the majestic spilt “milk” of the galaxy.
Except for three dark lines crisscrossing the splendour. It took me a second to realize these were power lines, above my head. That's how pitch it was out there. I drove for fifteen miles into the desert, without ever seeing, just beyond the periphery of the high beams, that there were power lines running parallel to the road the entire time.
The sky itself wasn't black. The land was, but the sky was surprisingly bright. A navy blue with a light tint of maroon and violet. The stars were all white, with the slightest hint of a sky blue. Even with all the majesty I was seeing, it was still only the stars on that colour spectrum; the reds and the yellows not luminous enough to show up.
It should be noted that when you look at pictures on Google Images, and see the entire sky streaked in red or violet or whatnot, you're seeing an image taken with a special camera with a lens adjusted to certain spectra of light. That's not what you see with your naked eyes. That's why none of my images turned out. With still frames, digital video and VHS video, all three were merely black screens (the backlight on those black screens blinded me to from the sky).
Yet, despite the differences between highly expensive cameras and my naked eyes, it was still (and I'm trying not to exaggerate, euphemize or get poetic here) the most spectacular sight I have ever seen, that was not on a woman's chest. I have to get that qualifier in there (and I'd gone to the Flamingo's burlesque topless dance show the night previous, so I had an up-to-date basis for comparison). There are not words to describe it.
And then, it got fucking spooky (I'm using that word quantitatively). Picture this: You can't see your hand in front of your face. The mountains in the distance could be twenty feet from you or a thousand miles. You didn't know there were power lines to your side. You missed the turn off. There's not a single light – not even a radio dial – from horizon to horizon. All you can see is something so dim that you haven't before seen 1/1000th of it, despite it having been there every night of your life.
And no one knows where you are. You're thirty miles into the desert with the bodies of Jimmy Hoffa and Amelia Earhart, at 12:30 in the morning, in a foreign country. I wasn't worried about other people that might be out there with ill intent. I was worried about the wildlife. I could be gored to death by a bighorn sheep and no one would ever know. I could be bitten by a rattlesnake. I could be prowled by a cougar (or a puma if you prefer – or a catamount, or whichever name you attach to it; it does hold the Guinness world record for the animal with the most names, as we learned at the National Atomic Testing Museum that Monday), whose range does extend into the desert.
And you literally would not see it until it took your eyes out (okay, in the case of the sheep, you might hear the clomping of its hooves as it charged towards you, but I really wasn't too worried about the sheep).
I didn't stay too long out there. My cameras clearly weren't working, and the image would be forever burned into my memory. Never has an image been more surreal, more awe-inspiring, more humbling.