Illustration by Bob AulWe traveled up california's spine like a blissful sensation, driving north all night along Interstate 5 almost to Oregon, so high it seemed we just might reach out and touch the stars. Yes, the stars were still up there, still everywhere, just as luminous as we remembered, even more numerous than the streetlights that blot out most of them down in Orange County. But all that spilled-sugar glitter still originated millions of light-years away, far beyond not only our reach but also our reason. That hadn't changed, either. As always, our attempts to comprehend what we were seeing didn't get anywhere. We had to be content—and, eventually, grateful—just to watch the stars, just to consider them and, inevitably, to be justly humbled by them. It was more than enough.
The starlight became a highlight of our summer vacation. From the back porch of a ramshackle mobile home perched on a mountaintop, eight miles of unpaved road above the gold-rush town of Weaverville, we stared in dumbfounded reverence as each grand and dazzling day was absorbed into the countless hot little dots of eternity. The stars flickered like old memories —which, of course, is the very definition of their light. The little beam of Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth, takes 4.3 light-years to get here. The soft sprinkle of Andromeda, the nearest spiral galaxy, travels 3 million years before we see it. By the time starlight arrives, the stars that emitted it may not even exist anymore.
As we sat on the porch of that old trailer, on that mountaintop, staring up, somebody remarked that we were actually reliving ancient history. It felt more like the fourth grade to me—and, well, that might be just about the same thing. Fourth grade is when I first studied California history and learned about gold-rush towns like Weaverville, which was founded in 1850. Fourth grade was when I began to appreciate the implications of a light-year, the nearly 6 trillion miles that light travels—at 186,282 miles per second—in one year. And fourth grade was followed by the summer that included the warm evening I lay alone on the back lawn of my uncle John's house in Anaheim, after all the other kids had gone inside, and lost myself looking into the sky at all the stars.
In the mid-1960s, lots of stars were visible above Anaheim. The city was still adorned with garlands of sweet-smelling orange trees. There were groves at both ends of my uncle's home on Ricky Avenue, just a few blocks from Disneyland. There were many more throughout Orange County, huge swaths of trees with dark-green leaves that after sunset seemed to turn blacker than the night, as though deferring to the celestial extravaganza above. But as I lay on my back that night, breathing in the friendly fragrance and listening to the familiar voices inside the house and floating off toward the twinkle-twinkle of the stars I'd learned to love in nursery rhyme, my most basic perspective unexpectedly shifted. Suddenly, my sense of my place and my importance changed. From the center of a carousel of my own worldly desires and concerns, I was whisked to the edge of a cosmic thrill ride that was speeding in unknown directions and with unknowable purpose. I thought I could feel the planet move faster and faster, that my body was being pressed against the little patch of back lawn by the force of this movement. Then I began to feel myself getting smaller and smaller.
But the sensation was not so much that I was shrinking as that the Earth itself was being left more and more alone as the edge of the ever-inflating sky raced away. The universe was expanding before my eyes. And as it did, my specific, Catholic-school God shattered, transforming into those countless sparkling pieces of light above me. Everything I had ever assumed was simultaneously validated and rendered indefinable. I thought I saw things moving and sensed things happening, but I knew that all of it was occurring in places so far away—and getting so much farther away with each succeeding moment than I could ever travel in a lifetime—that I realized I could never know it. Yet, as insignificant as I felt, I also sensed that I was known and being watched by all that I could never know or see. I wished I hadn't stayed out in the back yard when everyone else went inside. And as I got up and ran toward the house, I knew that my experience is the reason everybody on Earth does everything they do every day—filling their time, trying their best not to think too much about how they came to be in all this inspiring, horrifying, unanswered space. I realized that this is the eternal condition of the human race—terrified yet mesmerized by its unknown fate. Staring, wondering, looking away, and then looking once again.
"You've hit the nail on the head," says bob gent, his warm voice pouring reassuringly through the telephone from his home in Virginia, where I reached him after returning from my vacation in northern California. "That is exactly why I do this."