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Dark skies a rare treat for most

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You don’t appreciate dark skies unless you’ve lived without them. According to “the internet,” which is never wrong, 80 percent of Americans don’t live where they can see the Milky Way. Here in Grant County, most of us can see it even in town if we turn out the lights. And if we get a ways out of town, it blazes across the sky.

Before I moved here from Seattle, I was lucky to see a few hundred stars. City lights dimmed the sky for many miles beyond the city.

Recently I took a trip with other dark sky enthusiasts to the Cosmic Campground. I had driven by the sign, but never stopped at the campground on U.S. 180 several miles past Alma (74 miles north of Silver City). Our trip was part of an effort to revive an organization called Friends of the Cosmic Campground.

The original friends dreamed up a campground to celebrate and enable astronomy at a very dark location. They convinced the U.S. Forest Service, and construction of the campground began in 2012. In 2016, the campground was designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary — the first in North America.

But those original friends have moved on in one way or another, and now the campground is mostly just a campground. It still has telescope pads — our group used two of them. But there was only one other stargazer. Most people were camping and not paying much attention to the low-light rules.

Our mission was to discuss reorganization, which we did. It’s a worthy cause, and here’s my short invitation to join. Contact Luke Koenig of New Mexico Wild (luke@nmwild.org). He’ll get you on the discussion list. Or you can join the new Facebook group “Friends of the Cosmic Campground.”

After the organizing work, we got to look at the heavens, which included several surprises. We were all trying to look at a comet that was supposed to be in the west, and some of us finally did see a small, round blur.

But the view outside the telescope was more spectacular as a Falcon 9 rocket burst across the western sky. It was launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base on the California coast.

I never would have expected to see a California rocket launch in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico, but there it was, bigger than any star, with a bright corona moving slowly just above the horizon for several minutes. I notice on Facebook that some other people saw and photographed the same launch while driving from Bayard to Silver City.

A few minutes later we saw a falling star (a meteor) sinking slowly toward the Earth. We also saw Jupiter and several of its moons through the telescope, as well as several stars that we actually knew by name — although I’ve forgotten which ones. But the naked-eye surprises were better.

Back on Earth, we heard a troupe of coyotes closer than I’ve ever heard before. This call of the wild was confusing to the two dogs in our group. “Careful, dogs. When your wild cousins call out that they want to become one with you, they may not mean what you think.”

The Cosmic Campground is worth visiting and preserving, but there are lots of good places closer to town. There are regular stargazing events at City of Rocks, and I attended one a few years ago in the visitor center parking lot near the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Casitas de Gila, a vacation rental near Gila, is a stargazing destination that has many amenities for amateur or professional astronomers.

This emphasis on dark skies reminds me of a night I spent on a mountain near Lake Titicaca, Peru, 20 years ago. We were probably higher than anyplace in the continental United States, although no one was checking the altitude. Even if you don’t know your constellations, it’s disconcerting to look up and see no Orion or Big Dipper in the southern hemisphere. The Southern Cross and a different view of the Milky Way make up for it.

So those are a few of my experiences of dark skies. If you’re like me, you rarely think about the value of darkness. But it’s a blessing, and one that people in many parts of the country don’t enjoy. Get it while you can.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to bruce@greensilverlinings.com.
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