“Did you and Paul write down the moon phases?” my wife Michelle asked me.
“We can’t even see the moon,” I said. “It’s been too cloudy all month.”
Because of COVID, my son is doing his first grade online this year. I’m not thrilled with this, but here we are. And one of his assignments is to pay attention to the moon, and draw the phases each night.
You’d think this would be easy, but as September arrived, we went from a relatively clear summer to the cloudiest evenings on record. We hadn’t seen the moon in weeks. I wasn’t sure it was still there.
“You know what we should do?” I said. “If we really want him learning some astronomy, we should take him up to Cherry Springs State Park. It’s basically the darkest place in the state; you can see everything from up there.”
So we decided to take a drive up to the PA Wilds Dark Skies landscape one night after our weekly family dinner. Visiting Cherry Springs during the day just doesn’t have the same allure as driving up after sundown. The place becomes something special.
It’s about an hour from our place. Me, Michelle, 6-year-old Paul, and daughter Tif rode up along the ‘Highway to the Stars,’ which is slightly less exciting than it sounds, though there was some great autumn foliage. Paul entertained himself by rolling down his window and screaming out of it.
Cherry Springs State Park is fascinating. It basically straddles Highway 44. On one side is the regulated area reserved for professional astronomers. On the other side is the drop-in area for impulsive people like us. It’s, essentially, a field. It reminded me of the drive-in theaters we went to when I was a kid, a field with rows of cars parked randomly, looking at something.
We got out and sat down on the ground, pulling out blankets and lawn chairs. “Isn’t this great, Paul?” I said. “We can see the Big Dipper. We can see the Milky Way. We can see the whole night sky from here!”
“Is there a bathroom?” Paul asked.
Did I mention that Paul is 6?
So after the bathroom break, we settled back down to look at the sky. Cherry Springs is as far away from street lights as you can get while still remaining in Pennsylvania. The sky was full of stars, the closest of which was over four light-years away. This seemed to be enough social distance for me.
We identified the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, and I showed Paul and Tif how to find the North Star from them. Paul was highly impressed with Cassiopeia when I pointed that one out.
I lay down on my back in the grass, which may be the best way to view Cherry Springs. I put my hands behind my head and relaxed for a while, looking up at the night sky. There’s something about seeing the whole galaxy above that makes you feel very small and fragile. And then my son landed on me, and there’s something about that which reminds me that I am indeed fragile, and I am middle-aged and can never, ever let my guard down.
Photo: Lou and Paul. Taken by Michelle Bernard.
And, in the highlight of the night, just before we packed up to leave, we saw a UFO. Not a flying saucer, not an alien, just a light in the sky that we couldn’t identify. It was bright white, moving northeast at a fairly fast rate. Then it slowed to a stop, moved again in staggered jumps, dimmed and brightened, and then disappeared. We got all excited, and never did figure out what it was.
On the way home, as I sat in the back of the car, Paul fell asleep on my shoulder. Moments like that are why we adopted a kid. That night was well worth the hour drive each way, and I made a promise to myself to go back and visit Cherry Springs a lot more often. Sometimes, it takes the darkest place in the state to brighten my mood.
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