30 years ago I was still in college. I worked part time at a local bank to pay the bills, tuition and books. This was during the time I drove a 1976 Gremlin. Summer was the chance for me to work full-time and save up some cash for college, and I got paid by the hour back then, so I really wasn’t much acquainted with the concept of “vacation.” My older brother, on the other hand, was an expert on the subject. In fact he lived for vacations. Well this year, for whatever reason, he called me at my Shreveport, LA apartment one day from his Fort Collins, CO apartment and convinced me to join him at Lake Powell for a week long cruise around the lake in a houseboat with some friends of his.

I’ve got lots of stories I could tell from that trip, but not today.

Now by that time I was either 20 or 21, no longer a teenager and had been on my own for four or five years. I’d been driving across country on my own for six years at least. My range in my old ’64 Chevy Impala went from Mobile Alabama to San Antonio Texas, to Oklahoma City and many, many points in between.

But driving from Shreveport to Lake Powell would be the longest trip I’d ever taken up ’til then. And the way the schedule worked out, I had to make it in one shot, no rest from when I left work until I hit Hall’s Crossing Marina. That meant working all day and driving all night to be able to meet my brother and his friends in time to pay for the boat and head out to sea.

Texas is a big, big state. My path took me all the way across the widest part of Texas, then into New Mexico, and finally north into Utah. It was dark by the time I hit Wichita Falls, and it was midnight or close to it by the time I hit Amarillo, not even halfway to my destination. I was supposed to be at Halls Crossing Marina the next morning at 7:30 am, as I recall.

So on I drove, that little Gremlin purring along the highway, churning out mile after mile at 25 miles per gallon. But sleep was clawing at my eyeballs, and the caffeine I was pumping into my body was not keeping it at bay. By the time I hit Albuquerque I was all but done, and it was probably about 3:30 in the morning.

I figured I had to do something, and getting there late was better than getting there dead, so some miles west of Albuquerque, long after the city lights had faded into the blackness, I pulled off the road and turned the key in the Gremlin ignition to “off.” I sat there for a few minutes trying to clear my head, the last notes of Jim Croce fading from my 8-Track, and I rolled the window down and just sat there for a while listening to the night sounds, of which there weren’t many.

Then I started realizing just how dark it was. I’d never seen dark like this before. There was no moon in the sky, and the only light there was came from the stars above.

I got out of the car and walked around a bit, in the dark. Because I could SEE. This was a revelation to me, that given enough time my eyes were sensitive enough that I could actually SEE the road and my car just from the light of the stars and planets above.

So I lay down on the hood of the Gremlin and stared up into the sky.

Now, this may not come across as sufficiently modest, but at that time in my life I had near-perfect vision. I was able to read the smallest line on the eye test chart with ease. When I took the Air Force pilot training test I made a perfect score on their vision test, and I was told I was the first to have ever done that at the testing center I took the test.

Now I had been a physics student for years by now, and I knew more about the life cycle of stars, the origin of nebula the distance to galaxies, etc. than anyone probably ever really needs to know. I could quote you spectral types and explain the difference between red giants, blue giants, brown dwarfs…. whatever.

But I had always viewed the actual stars in the night sky as colorless points of white light, with a pale yellow Jupiter or red Mars occasionally being evident.

But laying there on the hood of my car, half wasted with exhaustion, I suddenly realized that the stars in the sky were IN COLOR.

There were red stars, blue stars, orange stars, stars of piercing white, stars in clumps that looked like glittering gems thrown on a black velvet cushion.

And the Milky Way was there. At first I thought it was a cloud. This great sweeping gauzy spread of mist was flung across the sky from horizon to horizon. Then I noticed that what I thought were “holes” in the stars were actually areas where something obscured the stars behind them. “Dark nebulae” is what they were called then, and of course I had studied them in Astronomy, but I had always assumed that you needed a telescope to see such things, but they were right there!

I don’t know how long I lay on the hood, looking up at the sky, trying to see how many colors I could count in the star clumps whose names I didn’t even know. Then, looking to the east, I watched the moon rise. It wasn’t a full moon, but it was still an impressive sight, a glowing red-orange blob on the far horizon. Watching for a few minutes I realized that I could see it moving. And it was pretty fast too. Soon a crescent was floating free above the horizon and was turning from red-orange into bright yellow.

And it was stealing my new-found ability to see the stars’ colors.

But I was awake! I was excited about this discovery of the night sky a way I had never seen it before. Suddenly I found myself wondering what it would be like to have a telescope. At that night, I believe, my love of stargazing was born. That night the night sky changed from an abstract concept mostly explored in books and into a place of beauty and wonder that you could explore with your own eyes!

I made it to Hall’s Crossing and we spent the next week romping all over the lake, and I can promise you, I was on the roof of that boat for half an hour at least every night, just reliving that experience of looking at the stars. I’m sure my brother and his friends thought I was a fruitcake…