Our daughter urges us from the back seat to quickly “pick a spot.” We’ve been driving for 30 mins from our mid-town home, past the university and the golf course, under the interstate, past the castle-like museum and up the mountains to the west. It’s the longest we’ve been in the car since March when the mandatory shelter-in-place orders came. As we ascend into the darkening hills past the houses with their expansive views of Tucson, through a narrow pass and beyond where the desert unfurls, my daughter asks us to quickly find a place where we can pull over and watch the desert sky dim hoping to see the comet Neowise.
I saw the comet Hale-Bopp (“perhaps the most widely observed of the twentieth century,” according to Wikipedia) from the parking lot of my parents’ New Jersey condominium. It looked nothing like what I expected: no fire, no motion, just a kind of smudge against a window of blueblack sky. At least that’s how I remember it. Hale-Bopp swung past Earth in 1997 before cell phones cameras turned us all into instant documentarians.
I want to drive far away from the crowded parking lots and scenic vistas. But from the backseat where she sits with two pillows and a giant stuffed animal, a bag of potato chips, box of crackers, flashlight and a stack of graphic novels, my daughter begs us to stop at the nearest trailhead and pull into a parking spot. As soon as we cut our engine, a man and a woman get out of the car next to us and walk without masks to their bumper, embrace and look up at the sky. We turn off our car, unbuckle our seatbelts and gaze to the northwest. My daughter turns on her flashlight as the last of sunset smears a bright back of yellow across the horizon that goes gray with cloud.
In my New Jersey childhood, the night sky glowed a pinkish yellow from the webs of light extending through suburbs and cities, all the way to the Hudson river, where just across its banks the lantern of Manhattan burned. I could only ever see a scattering of stars, all the constellations redacted. I was in my early twenties before I first saw a sky teeming with stars in the mountains of southern New Mexico, and I was awed to the point of fear, a feeling I would learn in graduate school was called “the sublime.” Under Tucson’s dark skies, I’ve seen more shooting stars than anywhere I’ve lived. I’ve driven to Kitt Peak and shivered on top of Mt. Lemmon to peer through enormous telescopes at mere slivers of the universe. From my own backyard, I saw a meteor burn orange-green through atmosphere.
In this year of the unprecedented, I take little comfort in what I can’t see or know. An election looms. The necessary uprisings continue. Does a cure or an extended curse wait just over the next few horizons?
We didn’t see Neowise that night from our car in the desert west of Tucson. The clouds never lifted. My daughter never settled. We headed back before the last light dropped from the horizon.
But on any clear night here in the desert, we can go out and look up. At first, the sky might seem like so much emptiness. Give it a minute, your eyes will adjust. If you wait long enough the stars and planets will come out blinking like shy children stepping into daylight from the shelter of their parents’ home.
And that may not be any consolation, but it’s as close as I am going to get to it.