Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Starry, starry night

The thick dense cloud cover along Saddle road drive wasn't looking optimistic. Where is the silver lining, there always is one! We didn't come this far to not be able to observe THE PHENOMENON. Every other minute we kept popping our heads up and outwards towards the sky for a starry glimmer of hope, a likely sighting of patchy clearing, we were yet only at an elevation of some 4000 ft. 

It was way past night fall, probably not the best time to traverse across the island, especially along this foggy stretch of desolate road. Saddle road is completely void of any gas stations, stores, or anywhere manned to get help. With no cell service and limited lights to illuminate the road, it is advisable to make sure you have the number of an island tow company before you begin your journey...yes! But weren't we here for an adventure, an incredible experience waiting to happen. 

The long drive from Hilo towards Kona gave us the opportunity to exchange thoughts, ponder on the wondrous beauty of the island, recollect its myriad experiences and hopefully add one more to our repertoire! And yes, also to basically stay awake at the wheel! We were gaining in elevation every few miles…and all of a sudden, it happened! The joy of spotting the first star in the sky was child-like exuberance and delight. It meant that the sky indeed was clearing, that there yet might be hope for us to witness what we had only read and heard about. First there was one, then 100, then a few hundred thousand …more than enough to give us the sign we needed to make that turn off Saddle road towards Mauna kea Observatory and visitor center. 

Stargazing unlike any other – that’s what we were going for! The visitor information center is located at 9200 ft elevation and offers a nightly free stargazing program held every night of the year from 6pm to 10pm. You can come any time, and stay as long as you like (provided you get to park).  After the introductory video, telescopes are set up for viewing, operated by the staff and volunteers. As soon as it's dark enough, the star tour begins, and you find yourself gazing into the darkest, deepest most brilliant star studded sky ever. 

Under a dark sky, a steamy Milky Way billows upwards from the Teapot’s spout to form a band that passes over your shoulders and into the north. When I gazed at what looked like smoke or a line of puffy clouds, I was told, I was looking straight through the thickest, starriest part of our galaxy’s flattened disk. Stars pile up over hundreds and thousands of light years into a narrow hazy band forming the Milky Way. Could this be true, that place, that precise moment took my breath away. It was as if I as glued to the earth beneath me; I froze in awe of the spectacle that revealed itself all around me. I was speechless along with the other 50-100 odd folks who were brave enough to make it out there - way above the cloud cover at nearly 10000 ft above sea level to stargaze like one can only dream about. 

The star gazing program begins at the telescope patio outside with knowledgeable staff stating the reasons as to why Mauna Kea. Geography and location allows seeing 85% of all the stars visible from earth here. For an hour using a power laser beam pointer, we were shown every visible planet (Venus, Mars), dozens of notable stars, zodiac constellations, even other galaxies! Power telescopes placed out on the patio gave you glimpses into this vast celestial unknown. It was a cool but beautiful night with no wind. Every second spent here was timeless. A memory etched forever. I was lost in the stars for another hour before heading down the mountain.  

My first time witnessing such a grand canopy of trillion twinkling stars was indescribable. Never in my life have I seen a sky so magnificent. Its as if the whole universe unraveled itself in front of you in order to share with you all its dark deep boundless secrets. Its where for me, scientific discovery and spirituality melded into one astonishing and unforgettable human experience.