A broken heart had cracked my windshield recently, spiderwebbing the future into many pieces that no longer seemed to fit together. The windshield analogy is fitting, because I threw some gear in the car and took off one night. I didn’t have a plan. No destination. No direction. Just motion. And a change of underwear and a toothbrush.
Nietzsche said “Only thoughts which come from walking have any value.” Since he said that in the late 1800s, he can be forgiven for not including a long cross-country drive. While I prefer walking too, I think his point wasn’t about the mode of transportation, but about a frame of mind you can hold for hours at a time. Time to think. Time to wonder. Four hours on a trail. 26 hours in a car. It all works out in the new math.
After a few hours of aimless highway wandering, I saw the constellation Orion, half hidden behind low hills. His sword hand seemed to be raised in a ‘Come on, this way.’ gesture and his shield arm was pointing west. So I followed, even though I wasn’t sure where he was leading me.
From that point I sought omens in every song. Tom Waits told me to cut a hole in my roof in the shape of a heart. Van Morrison suggested reading Rimbaud for very clear instructions when I was a dark night of the soul. Halloween, Alaska drowned with me and told me hope won’t weigh you down. Van Morrison (I have like a dozen of his albums on the iPod, so it’s only fair he speaks up more often) also traveled far, to the nearest star and Mount Palomar.
Mount Palomar. I had driven by it years before on a trip to Caramel, but now the name sent a shiver through me. I looked at the sky and saw Orion had stood up and was still pointing me south and west. Mount Palomar.
The dawn was frigid, but I kept the window half down so the breeze hits me from hairline to upper shoulder. I’ve always found cold to be a great purifier. It clarifies vision, distills thoughts and freezes away all that’s unnecessary. And so I chatter my way through the Heartland; a minimalist painting of stubbled cornfields and Roman-straight roads under a monochrome sky. And, like a painting, it never seemed to change as I drove.
I leave the main road in Paxton, Nebraska. It was a small street of a town with rusting white grain silos and a gas station that offered you the convenience of one-stop shopping for beer and ammo. I pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Longhorn Bar. It seemed to be the only place open.
I had hoped for a bit of country hospitality, but as I pushed away an empty plate and my second mug of beer, a man with a half-thought out beard and sleeveless t-shirt bought with redeemed Camel points stuck a thick finger in my sternum and growled down at me how I wasn’t born here, but I’ll likely die here. He jabs his finger just above the last button on my shirt and I can feel it’s thick with calluses. Life-size naked ladies dance along both his arms amid a blue-green sea of leaves and hearts and scrolls bearing unidentifiable warnings.
Apparently an honest smile and multisyballic words are taken as affronts here because when his fist grazes my ear, it feels like its been rubbed off; numb like after a long run in winter, a sting of icicles smacking you in the head and then bursting into flame.
I step into his momentum, ducking my head until it bumps his chest. I can smell sweat and beer and failed store brand deodorant mixed with some kind of industrial solvent. My fist comes up, past my sore ear, on its own accord. While the motion seems unattached from my body, I feel it meet something hard and scratchy and then continue upward past it. There’s a sound like a horse’s hoof clop on pavement and suddenly I’m tottering backward under his weight.
He slips slowly and somewhat gracefully to the floor, turning completely around onto his right shoulder and then onto his back as I step away. His eyes stare upwards, but don’t see anything.
All heads turn from the guy on the ground to me. I brace myself for an assault from a buddy or some shrieking girlfriend with big hair and long fingernails. But there seems to be a communal shrug like this happens often enough to set your Tivo by. One of his friends, just as tall, but not as broad, stands over him with a thin smile and toes him with a cowboy boot. He groans.
I hope my mumbled ‘Hmmph’ is taken for a sign of badassedness and not because my chicken sandwich basket feels like it wants to come up and see what happened. The barmaid tosses a “Sorry!” at me on my way out the door, snapping her gum for an exclamation point.
Gravel ricochets off the wheelwell as I leave the parking lot. I make it about a mile away before I pull over. I’m shaking. Partly in fear, partly because I wanted to jump down on his chest and keep punching until neither of us could feel anything. In crisis situations, the body shunts blood from the extremities to the core. It’s another five minutes before I see a flush of pink return to my fingertips.
The Rockies rise seemingly straight up from the plains. There’s no geographic foreplay here. Just–boom–14,000 feet of metamorphic rock hunching its shoulders at you. I would like to linger in Denver or Colorado Springs, but push on.
With the peaks disappearing over the horizon behind me, I’m back in open spaces where eons are laid bare. Where even bedrock succumbs to the centuries and gives way to the persistent caress of water. I dodge left outside Hurricane and sneak up on the Grand Canyon from the south just before sunset.
The viewing area is crowded, but there is a reverent cathedral hush that everybody honors. Parents put arms around kids. Lovers lean back against each other. And we all just stare. Better blessed writers than I have attempted to describe the sunset here, but even they fail. It’s simply something that must be seen, so I’ll let my words trail off into nothing here. But I will say this first: We spend our lives too close up. To a computer screen. A TV. The bumper of the car in front of you. A dinner table. As far as the next billboard or building. We rarely have a chance to let our eyes stretch this far. It’s a lot of openness for you to try and fill with wonder or imagination or meaning or whatever you want.
It’s hard to sleep thinking that vast space is just over yonder. You wouldn’t even know it until you were on it. I read poetry by candlelight because that’s how it was written and the words grow long dark beards that nod solemnly on the pages. Rilke’s blood-remembering, Tennyson’s flower in the crannied wall, Thomas’ too bright skies.
When sleep comes it brings a dream of standing near the edge of a cliff, but it’s not the canyon. It’s the edge of the world. Beyond is nothing but endless space filled with orbs of light. There’s a hesitant running start and I sense other people around me, but I can’t see them. We gather speed and leap off the edge into a nothingness filled with these warm glows. Instead of falling we float, moving through pixilated ether. The glows rotate about me as I move and a feeling of joy comes over my dream self.
My route meant I was able to avoid Vegas and rejoin Highway 15 just past the Mojave National Preserve. Some might consider a Sin City side trip the perfect tincture for the low-down-woman-done-did-me-wrong-blues, but not this journey. I remember the first time I drove into Vegas. It was at night. You could see the neon wavering in the heat before you crested the last hill. An alien Sodom and Gomorrah circuit-board with all-you-can-eat buffets. But now it’s daylight. It’s like the lights coming up after a rock concert or walking behind a movie set. The sun burns away the magic.
The haze of Los Angeles rises in the distance; a modern smoke signal telling me to bend south. In an hour, I’m zigzagging up the switchbacks of Birch Hill inside Mount Palomar National Park. The bald white head of the Observatory sticks above the pines.
I may have actually bounded up the steps in my eagerness. I grabbed the door and pulled. It didn’t budge. I rattled it a few times before noticing the ‘closed’ sign with the tour hours. I had just missed it. I pressed my face to the glass, my hands bracketing my eyes, hoping to see someone. But there was just a bust of George Ellery Hale—the man the 200-inch Hale Telescope housed inside is named after–sternly staring at me from the darkened lobby.
Not sure what to do, I began walking around the building. As I rounded the west side, there was an employee parking lot. A man who appeared to be in his late 60s and wearing a dark green windbreaker was repeatedly thrusting his remote key at his black Jetta. From here it looked like he was wagging his finger, scolding it for not locking.
By the time it chirped and blinked in obedience, I was close enough to talk. I asked about the tours, but he just waved the stuffed manila folder he was carrying in the air.
“They’re closed. They’ll be open tomorrow.”
He stopped and turned. “But what?”
I was taken aback by the question and said something dumb like “But what what?”
“Was there a thought after that ‘but’ or was that it?” Both his hands came around in front of him, clasping the folder like a teacher asking a student to spit out his gum.
I just took a deep breath and jumped. Everything fell out without any commas or periods to put the brakes on. I told him about the broken relationship. The cross-country drive. How I just needed to see something in the universe that made sense. Something worthy of superlatives. Of awe. Something beyond all this. Fuck, I don’t know. I really just went from the gut, which goes through the heart, but usually bypasses the brain. Which is why I probably blurted out the part about Orion pointing me the way. I had forgotten to breathe during the whole tumbling of words and when I did now it was just a wavering sigh. Fuck. I must sound like a nutjob.
There was a long pause during which his eyes never left my face. Never even blinked. He just squinted, his eyebrows bunched up into his forehead. I prayed there was a little bit of poet mixed in with the scholar.
His brow unknuckled a bit “Orion, eh? Birthplace of stars there.”
“Yes, in his belt. The Trapezium and Orion Nebula…” I offered, hoping some knowledge would help convince him of my sanity.
“I’m studying the opposite. Stars dying. Or stars that have died to be exact. By the time the light reaches us it’s usually centuries old… ” He then went on for several paragraphs from which the only word I really understood was ‘supernova’. But he ended with “Come on, this way.”
So I had managed to find myself getting into one of the world’s most significant telescopes. I followed silently, murmuring responses as I was introduced to his colleagues as they got the big 200-inch telescope ready for the night’s work. Most of it was making sure various filters and sensor equipment was taken up a little metal cage and positioned properly somewhere up in the massive mechanism.
While this was going on, I said “It must be rare to find a supernova.”
He huffed unhappily at what a gauge was showing before turning his chair back to me. “It is. Especially one in the act of going ‘boom’. But a star explodes in the universe every second.”
I was stunned. “Every second?”
In the time we had this exchange, eight stars had exploded. Every time my heart thumped it was echoing a cataclysm on a scale that we don’t even comprehend yet. Whole worlds obliterated into nothingness. I began to think Orion had steered me the wrong way.
There was a creak of metal and the dome slowly split open to reveal the night sky. It was like seeing it for the first time. Suddenly it seemed real, I guess. Something that could be studied and quantified. Something you could ask to smile and take a picture of.
A lot of the night was boring work. It’s not like you go up and squint into a tiny eyepiece on the end of a huge telescope. The 100-ton dome rotated slowly with a mere 1/4hp motor, keeping up with the section of sky they were studying. Out in space those objects were hurling through the heavens, exploding out particles at 99% the speed of light. From here, all that violence was reduced to a wish-upon twinkle. But the computer screens knew what was going on. The staff pointed out what various readings and charts were registering. The colors and clarity and understanding would come later after hundreds of computers crunched and reformed pixels—but for now it was real enough. A peek over God’s shoulder while he tinkered at his workbench.
Late in the night he showed me some of those photos pulled from the folder he’d been carrying in the parking lot. They looked like close-ups of a fluorescent lava lamp.
“Whenever the core of a huge, fast-spinning star collapses, these plasma jets shoot out into space and release amazing amounts of gamma radiation. That’s how we’re able to detect them right before they go ‘nova. When they do, they blast elements like iron, carbon and oxygen across the universe.” His bearded face never strayed from the data flickering across the screen. He stared at it like Moses must have stared at the burning bush. “The iron in our blood comes from supernovas. There’s a direct connection between the stars and us.”
After that there is nothing more to say. What could be said? It was time for me to go.
He walked me out, so I wouldn’t run into trouble with the security guard. I shook his hand at the bottom of the steps. “Thanks.” I said. I don’t think he knows how heartfelt it was.
Before he let go of my hand, he said “Did you know stars sing when they die?”
“Before they collapse the core oscillates rapidly. They actually send out sound waves.” His hands now formed around an invisible ball in the air while he flexed his fingers back and forth. “The sound waves amplify the core’s vibration until it explodes. If you were within hearing distance they’d be audible. Roughly the F note above middle C.”
And then he turned to leave, the muffled slam of the door shutting off the thin walkway of light that pointed the way to my car. It was so dark it felt like I didn’t have a body; only a big upturned bowl of stars falling over me.
I listened, but there was nothing. Just my beating heart keeping time with the destruction of galaxies. The stars were silent. And that silence was calling me home.