In July 1986, Life The magazine described US Route 50 as the “loneliest highway in America.”
Beneath a single depressing photo, the magazine featured this description of the two-lane highway:
“It’s totally empty,” says one AAA advisor. “There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. “The 287-mile stretch of US 50, from Ely to Fernley, Nevada, passes through nine towns, two abandoned mining camps, a few gas pumps, and an occasional coyote.” We caution all motorists that do not drive there, “says the AAA representative,” unless you are confident of your survival skills. “
It was a colossal failure, but Nevada tourism officials couldn’t have been happier. Suddenly, LifeThe fact that he wasn’t backing up his depressing little road had given him a brand, and in doing so, he succeeded in popularizing the road among a certain group of gloomy travelers. The state put up signs announcing the new name: HWY 50, THE MOST SOLITARY HIGHWAY IN AMERICA.
Just three months after that article was published, US 50 garnered an attraction that even the most jaded AAA advisor would have agreed that at least counted as a point of interest. Just a few miles up the road, a 76,000-acre parcel of land received a private label upgrade. In October 1986, Congress passed a law establishing the Great Basin National Park.
The park was intended to serve as a cross-section of the entire Great Basin region, a huge watershed spanning five states, including nearly all of Nevada. All the water found in the Great Basin is drained or evaporated internally, never reaching the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.
The park itself is less than 300 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, the brightest place on our entire planet as seen from space. But the loneliest highway in the country doesn’t have many headlights. The closest town to the Great Basin, Baker, Nevada, is home to just 68 people.
“We’re pretty weird,” Ranger Annie Gilliland told me when I met her near the visitor center. “This is one of the … if not the darkest place in Lower 48 “.
Annie is a “Dark Ranger”, part of an elite team of park staff who run regular astronomy presentations.
“I love it,” he said, smiling. “It makes me look like a superhero.”
The Dark Rangers are royal guardians of the galaxy, tasked with ensuring that lighting within the park is kept low so visitors are not distracted from the sky above. At Great Basin, the stars are the star attraction.
Before my meeting with Annie, I had spent the day hiking a few short trails and drove down the park’s Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. The scenery I’d seen was pretty nice, but most of it, to me at least, was the same type of pine nut and juniper forest that can be found throughout the Great Basin region.
If one were to go home when the sun goes down, then the Great Basin might just seem as “Big” as the Great Plains. This is why rangers like Annie encourage visitors to stay. Here’s a saying …
Half the park … is after dark.
I had heard of the Great Basin skies and had scheduled my visit to arrive on the night of the new moon, the darkest night possible. It was also a weekend night, which meant that Annie would be hosting one of her popular astronomy talks. As the sun set, a small crowd began to form in the parking lot. Flashlights were forbidden, Annie wanted our eyes to adjust naturally.
When the stars finally made their debut, the canopy shining above my head didn’t seem like something to be called “dark sky.” Wind Cave was Dark. This was the brightest sky he had ever seen.
Rising from the east, the Milky Way slowly cut across the Great Basin horizon; it seemed the heavens had been torn apart. This was not a faint constellation where you have to struggle to connect the dots only to see a shape that vaguely resembles a bear chasing twin crabs. This was an unmissable Interstellar Grand Canyon, a massive band of light so bright it cast shadows on the ground.
I was paralyzed. It was difficult to understand that all these thousands of stars had been there the entire time, hidden in plain sight. I realized that all the other supposedly beautiful starry nights in my life had been symphonies with missing notes. At Great Basin, I was finally able to appreciate the entire composition.
An astronomer would tell you that he was still seeing only a small fraction of the universe. The human eye, in the best conditions, can see less than 5,000 of the billions of stars that shine only in our galaxy. As I tried to take them all in, I wondered if the limiting factor was not the eye, but the human brain. Add even a few dozen more bright white punctures and it felt like my head was going to explode.
When he occasionally lowered his gaze to rest his neck for a few minutes, he could see the heads of a hundred other tourists stretch skyward, eyes wide with wonder. Annie had set up telescopes in the parking lot for anyone who wanted to take a closer look. When I approached one to observe Jupiter, I met a Boy Scout troop from Farmington, New Mexico, who had come to the park to earn their merit badges in astronomy. I asked one of the Scouts if the sky was different from what he was used to seeing at home.
“I can’t watch any of this at home,” he said. “It makes me think, our world is so small, and the galaxy is so big.“
At an age when most children believe they are the center of the universe, the Great Basin stars helped remind this child that he was not. That none of us are.
For most Americans, this kind of cosmic perception is increasingly difficult to achieve. More than two-thirds of the country lives in areas where the Milky Way cannot be seen from their backyards. While we know far more about the cosmos today than any generation in history, watch a lot less.
When the International Dark Sky Association announced in 2016 that it was recognizing Great Basin as a “Dark Sky Park,” program manager John Barentine told the Las Vegas Magazine that Great Basin was “as close as possible to what the night sky might have been before the invention of electric light.”
It’s easy to forget that the time he was referring to was not actually that long ago. The lights have only been obscuring our view of the sky for a century and a half; Thomas Edison’s company didn’t start selling light bulbs until the 1880s, and it took a long time for cities to become the glittering metropolises we know today. But our world is getting brighter and brighter. The scariest predictions estimate that, by 2025, there may be no dark skies left in the 48 Netherlands.
Before it could be certified as a Dark Sky Park, Great Basin first had to adjust its lighting fixtures so that they all point downward. The light bulbs around the visitor center were modernized to use low-wattage red lights, a color that allows our eyes to keep a better fit in the dark. (That’s why everything from the numbers on digital alarm clocks to the interior of submarine control rooms is lit red.)
Most importantly, the park made an effort to never use more light than necessary. When something was not in use, it was turned off. That’s how easy it can be to tackle light pollution. It can literally disappear with the flick of a switch. Light pollution is reversible.
Parks, with their responsibility to preserve, “intact”, our natural resources, have an ecological responsibility to consider the impact of light. Artificial light sources can cause massive alterations to the circadian rhythms of animals in parks and impact the relationship between nocturnal predators and their prey. The lights can also disorient species that depend on the moon and stars for navigation signals.
Every year in Florida, millions of baby sea turtles die when they drift away towards artificial light sources along the beach, mistaking the brightness of the condos for the moonlight. The frogs, who croak at night to find a mate, maybe never realize It is night if there is too much light outside. If the males can’t be in the mood to make their baby-making music, then the females don’t mate and the frog population dies out.
Beyond the environmental impact of light pollution, seeing the stars in the Great Basin reminded me that the night sky itself it is a resource worth preserving. The sight of what lies beyond our world can be as powerful and transformative as any of the landscapes on its surface. Unfortunately, protecting that sight is beyond the power of some Dark Rangers. The sight of what lies beyond our world can be as powerful and transformative as any of the landscapes found on its surface.
Taken from Leave only footprints by Conor Knighton Copyright © 2020 by Conor Knighton. Excerpted with permission from Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
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