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Universal Appeal

The night skies of far West Texas bring celestial wonders to light

I am often surprised by the way the night skies of far West Texas remind me of scenes in science fiction movies. Above the silhouette of a mountain horizon, nighttime skies are at their most dramatic, offering unobstructed views of comets, satellites, meteors and galaxies, all unraveling in a dreamlike firmament.

Long past sunset, in the late hours after midnight, the sky seems particularly otherworldly. Perhaps it’s because in these later hours the sky’s recognizable touchstones—Orion, Sirius, the dippers—are hanging askew rather than in their accustomed places or, in concert with the Earth’s rotation, have disappeared altogether. Or maybe it’s the mischievous temperament of the sky itself, aware that the few who glance up into deep night are bleary and disoriented and easier to lure away from reason. These darkest moments provide the wily universe with a chance to perform atmospherics unlike those that ever inhabit our waking hours.

As a lifelong astronomy enthusiast with only a basic understanding of how the universe actually works, my lack of knowledge about the science of stars and planets means I am astonished every time I look through a telescope—a sort of blessing disguised as ignorant bliss. The first time I peered at the spiraling Andromeda galaxy through professional optics, in Fort Davis at one of the McDonald Observatory’s star parties, it made my head spin. I couldn’t look away, irritating the other visitors in line behind me who were waiting for a turn at the eyepiece. But each time I would begin to draw back, I was pulled in again, as if the galaxy’s spiraling movement—eons in the turning—could be felt as well as seen.

When I was a kid growing up in South Texas, I had my own telescope—an inexpensive junior scientist scope my parents gave me for Christmas one year. By today’s standards, it was a toy. But the optics were good enough to extend my visible reach skyward, much farther than I had ever experienced, and I spent hours outside, just staring into the craters of the moon. Fifty years later my enthusiasm for the universe survives in the Big Bend, beneath one of the darkest skies in Texas. Waking from a deep sleep to pull on a pair of boots and lumber outside to witness meteor showers, comets and lunar eclipses never disappoints. Many of these astronomical events occur overhead for just a moment each year, or once in a lifetime, and sometimes only once in a millennium, but they are fleeting proof of the mythic fires in the sky, highlighting a short list of events that have yet to feel the compromise of a human-made world.

Photographer, author and artist E. Dan Klepper lives in Marathon.