Thursday, December 29, 2016


(A few days ago…)
Alejandro picks us up as the golden hour is starting to fade in Pisco Elqui. Elqui Valley and the state of Coquimbo is the Ruta de las Estrellas: the route of the stars, because of its dry air and very clear skies. The biggest telescopes are to the north in the Atacama desert, but Elqui Valley has a bunch of smaller telescopes for research and for tourists.

We aren't going to any of these. Instead, we pull up to the very end of the dirt road, in a natural bowl created by the high mountains, some of them over 12,000 feet high. We're close to the Argentine border. I've circled Alcohuaz on the map below.
Jorge and Anita greet us, and Jorge makes a fire. Our eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. Jorge points out Venus and Mars. Then we look at a variety of constellations near and far through the telescope.
We're outside long enough to see the stars move, thanks to the earth's rotation. I get my best glimpse yet at the Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds, with the Southern Cross, the most famous of Austral constellations.

I've been looking at the stars through my skylight back at the hotel, and on 4 am walks to the bathroom a hundred yards away. The previous night I saw Jupiter, the brightest object in the sky. (I know this thanks to the Star Walk app on my phone, and wifi from the hotel pool bar.)

Years ago I took a 5-week astronomy class at the Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park. It was after hours, and we got to sit in the old planetarium, while Walt, the voice of the planetarium, taught us about the best-known constellations for each season. On the 5th week, we went to the Southern Hemisphere, the first time I had traveled south of the equator. I've since been below the equator many times, in New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, and Peru. But this is the brightest I've ever seen the Magellanic Clouds.

In English and Spanish, Jorge and Anita tell us the various myths of the constellations, from the indigenous Mapuche people to Greek and Lakota myths for the Pleiades. Orion, of course, is upside down in Chile. So are Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins.

I see several shooting stars, gone before I'm even sure they were there, and wish fervently on them.

One cluster reminds me of a kaleidoscope. It's a pristine night. I tell Anita and Jorge about astronomy week at Bryce Canyon, which I happened upon this June. It turns out Anita has been to the United States—she spent a semester at University of Nevada: Reno! Long before she was interested in the stars. She agrees, Nevada felt like northern Chile.

I hope, Anita says, that the milky way is still here for my grandchildren. The ones that aren't born yet. I hope so too.

Adrienne Rich's Planetarium:
I am bombarded yet         I stand

I have been standing all my life in the   
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most   
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep      so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15   
years to travel through me