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Core Samples

Jay Meehan, Record columnist

Night-sky-wise, we’re moving into a most favorable space in the neighborhood of 40-degrees-north latitude. It’s all about keeping bundled up, heading outdoors during the middle of the night, and observing the visible universe.

With ambient light being somewhat minimal up here in the foothillls outside Heber proper, it hasn’t been all that difficult over the years to locate clearings in the sage where observation posts can quickly be set up that use undulations in the land to block out unwanted manmade incandescence.

This is all naked-eye stuff a folding chair in its pack slung over the shoulder, a backpack with a groundcloth, a thermos of carefully doctored insight, a snack of some sort, and a small flashlight with a red filter for reading star manuals without losing night vision. And even though you might arouse a dog or two, there is a peace to post-midnight trekking not available once you fire up the jalopy.

On this particular night, there’s even the faint possibility of spotting the odd shooting star or two as part of the annual Leonid meteor shower. You wouldn’t want to bet the farm on it, however.

The ongoing erosion within the debris field of comet Temple-Tuttle, coupled with the odds of being caught gazing longingly at Pleides while a brilliant streak transits an arc elsewhere across your periphery, make it a long shot. But, as they say out in the cosmos, rubble happens.

There is this attraction component to Pleides. They are flat-out "Sirens." They are a cluster of young, hot, blue stars that have been known to keep the "night-errant" warm during the shivering waltz steps of winterlude. They’ve also been known to cause the mind to wander which is not necessarily a bad thing.

With the moon now slinking below the western horizon, Venus is the dominant light source. The initial reaction is that it can’t possibly be a planet. Only supernovae are that brilliant. Oh m’gosh! A neighboring galaxy must have achieved terminal density and imploded. Where’s the thermos?

Once within the small clearing chosen for this particular immersion into space, you situate the chair for ease of viewing the circumpolar constellations, the aforementioned Pleides, and the magnificent Orion.

There will be sporadic standing and roaming, of course, especially near the end of the shift when attempting to acquire a visual of that ever-so-subtle mama’s boy, Mercury. Just off the eastern horizon, he’s one aloof dude! You know, first rock from the sun and all. That being said, when you finally do make contact, it’s a pretty cool thing you want to brag about it.

It’ll be a bit before the star Regulus finishes dragging its very bright self and the rest of the constellation Leo along with it high enough into the sky so Leo’s "hook," or "sickle," becomes apparent. It will be from within this reverse question mark that the Leonid meteor shower would emanate.

But, once you locate it, whatever you do, don’t look directly at it. Somehow this act, in itself, is enough of a "butterfly effect" to keep any stray debris in four-dimensional spacetime from streaking across the sky. Its like Heisenberg’s "uncertainty principle," only this time in the cosmic universe.

Saturn should be up in the same "hood" doing that reflection thing it does. The only way you ever find that elegantly ringed gas giant is by knowing beforehand where it should be. "Oh yes, that would be Saturn," you toss out as if you had placed it there only moments before.

"And right behind it, hidden from view at the moment, is its largest moon, Titan. It is rumored that that’s where Kurt Vonnegut went after leaving his earthly trials behind and inadvertently intersecting the phenomenon known as chrono-synclastic-infundibulum, an evolved hotbed of situational realities." Now, that sounds like the thermos talking.

Was it mentioned that Pleides made your mind wander? Let’s see, where were we? Oh yes, looking for Regulus? If Ed Abbey were here, he would not doubt find it. Ed is now a turkey buzzard but there was a time when he would lie for hours on end upon a bedroll beside his 1973 blue Ford F-100 pickup and gaze at the night sky.

That would be the very same truck made famous in medical circles some years back when Ed offered the following advice on how to avoid pleurisy: "Never make love to a girl named Candy on the tailgate of a half-ton Ford pickup during a chill rain in April out on Grandview Point in San Juan County, Utah." Now, that’s Pleides talking.

If truth be known, after a half hour or so it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the head-thrown-back body language of a sagebrush stargazer. Flopping on a ground cloth with a backpack as a pillow and with hands-folded-behind-head completely changes the perspective, however.

There is comfort in the heavens. There is a sense of the familiar and a sense of place. And thar she blows! The first shooting star of the night. Maybe Leonid, maybe not. Could very well be one of those "sporadic" buggers one not associated with any particular meteor-shower denomination.

There would be no others this night. But there would be Mercury laying low behind a thin wisp of cirrus clouds on the walk back. ‘Twas a night well spent on the bridge of Spaceship Earth, lazily scoping out the stardust womb of interstellar space. A sense of Thanksgiving. A sense of home.

Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.


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