4.1.08

"Sensory Deprivation" may have been optimistic.

When I stepped outside this morning, the first thing I thought was, "I wonder if all that blathering about the joy of the journey will conceal the fact that I'm going stargazing on a completely overcast evening?" The clouds were thick and opaque, tinted orange with the sodium glow of the city's lights. Certainly not ideal conditions, but since I was up already, I got into Atanarjuat, my faithful Hyundai Accent, and took off.

The first part of the drive was what I'd hoped; alone in the dark, only my thoughts and a coffee to keep me company, and the added bonus of being well-rested enough to look out for nocturnal antelope. I imagined how much cooler our government would be if we had a "Ministry of the Future" that actually looked beyond winning the next election, which led me back to meteors, and what it would be like, tumbling through space, free of orientation, simply enjoying the view as velocity carried you towards your destination, with only the stars around you. Once or twice I pulled to the side of the road to get out and check the sky, but the glow of the city still dominated the horizon, and the Lethbridge Express howled as it pulled at my unzipped ski jacket. I retreated back to the still warmth of Atanarjuat, and kept on driving.

The wind was indeed cold and livid (or, as my friend MJ would say, frivid), but the roads were clear and dry for the full 60km to Elkwater Park. I couldn't see the valley, but I followed the curve of the road downhill, which is where I saw the patches of white covering the asphalt. "Gee," I thought, "I didn't expect snow on the road. I better slow down."

And, at that moment, I was pointed perpendicular to the road, still traveling downhill, tumbling through space, free of orientation, as my velocity carried me towards my destination, with only the stars around me.

How poetic.

Unlike a meteor, though, Atanarjuat's brakes had been replaced this summer. I stopped spinning and started slowing down, with nothing left to do but wait for impact with the guard rail... and then, there it was, embracing my car like a cheese grater embracing a bar of soap. Ker-rumpch.

I could still drive, so I eased into the town of Elkwater, where I could stop underneath a street light and inspect the damage. I'm happy to say it felt worse than it looked, and all that Atanarjuat suffered was some paint loss on the bumper. Ah, well... like they say, you can't spell "scar" without C-A-R. My spirits (if not my nerves) restored, I kissed my car in gratitude, and then I was back in the hunt. I parked in an open picnic area, far away from any lights, and got out for a clear look at the sky.

My earlier fears about the overcast sky were unfounded. Both city lights and stars are stronger than you think; one makes the clouds seem thicker than they are, and the other shines right through them. Thousands of stars surrounded me, and I no longer worried about not knowing any constellations; it seemed pointless to try and put a word to such a sight. Squinting in the general direction suggested by the astronomy websites, I finally saw something just above the horizon. A faint flickering, a wavering set of lights, all seeming to originate from the same direction. Truly a delicate moment, and I almost held my breath as I watched, not wanting to scare our visitors away...

When all of a sudden, a searing blaze shot through the sky high above me -- and nowhere near where I was looking. Oh. So *that's* a meteor, then. Then I saw another one, in a completely different area, but just as bright. I hunkered down behind an electrical box for some shelter, and looked straight up into the sky to let the meteor shower wash right over me.

After a while, the cold was starting to get to me, so I finally went back to the car and started the drive back. As I climbed out of the valley, one last meteor flared low across the horizon, square in the center of my windshield's view. Unlike the others, this one seemed to linger in the air a bit longer -- or else I was just trying to hold on to the moment. I returned the gesture, and said good-bye to the Quadrantids as I went back home to Medicine Hat.

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Canadian explorer. Chemist by training, biologist by nature. Long-time supporter and participant in National Novel Writing Month. Known as "Aquadeo" in most Internet circles. Also known as "that guy with the pants" to people who have seen me in certain pants.