The buzz in the Heber Valley astronomical community had it that prime viewing would occur after midnight this past Saturday once the waxing crescent moon had set. Luckily, it was a timeframe that happened to work quite well with the designated driver's schedule. Plus, it was late enough for intrusions by a ridgeline neighbor's over-the-top exterior lighting to succumb to its timer.
Like most night-sky viewing areas outside of Bryce Canyon or Chaco Canyon, the annual increase of ambient light in the Heber Valley has lent itself to reduced visibility when it comes to scanning the heavens. And with subdivisions steadily taking over pastureland, it doesn't figure to get any better anytime soon.
But that doesn't mean one shouldn't pack up a chair, a blanket, a thermos, a red-filtered flashlight (so as not to lose one's night vision) and tromp off into the local sagebrush to spend a couple of hours staring up at the sky north of the star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. Entertainment in the Heber foothills is where you find it.
My guess is that the portly gray dude engages in this sort of activity three or four times a year out of the half-dozen or so opportunities for meteor-shower observation that avail themselves to him through online alerts.
Admittedly, there are times when he finds it difficult to set his alarm and drag his lethargic self out in the middle of the night. But when he's sufficiently primed and has already been out and about and gets home during the early hours of the morning, as was the case this past weekend, it's no problem to stay up for a cosmic light show.
It's funny that he treats these outings with such reverence in that he very seldom catches sight of more than a half-dozen-or-so meteors throughout any of his viewing windows no matter how long he sits in the sage.
The Orionid meteor shower, so named because the long, bright fireballs appear to emanate from the constellation "Orion the Hunter," features particles from Halley's Comet as they plummet at nearly 150,000 miles per hour into the Earth's atmosphere, burning up along the way and leaving visible streaks across the sky.
Actually, time spent under the night sky attempting to identify constellations, nebulae, planets and other occupiers of the visible universe is well worth the miniscule effort involved. Not to mention the quite graphic hallucinations that often come with the territory. It's a jungle out there.
The upside for those stargazers who don't get much beyond the major constellations is that they are much easier to pick out of the night sky when only the brightest stars are visible. But for those into the challenge of identifying the more esoteric clusters, you can't beat a vantage point with little, if any, ambient light.
The sky becomes so luminous that identifying even the most familiar night sky object becomes problematic. On just such an outing down in Capitol Reef National Park several years back, the portly gray dude himself is credited with coining the phrase, "What the hell happened to Cassiopeia?"
Under such circumstances, from our vantage point near the edge of one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, the visible center of the Milky Way itself crosses overhead in a wide band oftentimes from one horizon to the other and there doesn't appear to be room for even one more single star in the sky.
It wasn't that way early Sunday morning up among the sage and hares of the Heber foothills, however. The sky displayed a starkness that riveted you in place and the large spaces between the usual suspects were as beautiful and haunting as the stellar objects themselves. It reminded the jazz music fan hunkered in the bush that the notes Thelonious Monk didn't play always seemed to be just as spectacular as the ones he did.
Later on in that morning of a very long night, after catching three "shooting stars" of the erupting and colorful persuasion within a half-hour timeframe, the portly gray dude packed up his gear and headed the few hundred yards back to his digs. His thermos was lighter, as was his step, as he bushwhacked home with a satisfied smile and a full heart.
There's nothing quite like finding a comfortable spot in the cosmos.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.