Today marked the halfway point in our trip. We had not yet gone as far south as we have planned, with that trip to be made on the 12th, yet our time out experiencing darkness has begun to wane. Acknowledging this, I am urged to live in the moment. Be here now. Be spontaneous.
Driving south from Grace’s home just north of the Arizona-Utah border, we set out on a perfectly clear and sunny day. As we have been traveling south, I have noticed how the Sun and the Moon have continued to move higher and higher in the sky. Day time temperatures have begun to reach the high 40s, tanning our skin and warming our bones.
Our destination was Flagstaff, AZ – the “World’s first international dark sky city.” Home to breweries like Dark Skies Brewing Co., Flagstaff and its community are all about protecting naturally dark skies against light pollution for several reasons. Their Evolving Standards for street lighting details the following:
“To remain one of the premiere astronomic sites in the world, to properly recognize preservation of naturally dark night skies as a persistent expression of community values, to acknowledge the ecological and human health benefits of the natural light-dark cycle, and to better-utilize a critical economic and tourism attractant, the region must implement evolving standards that proactively address problems associated with increased artificial light, air pollution, illuminated signage, and development - both adjacent to major scientific instruments and within the region.”
This is a mission than began in 1958 with the implementation of Ordinance 400, a law banning the use of searchlights within city limits to keep skies dark for the established Lowell Observatory. More on Flagstaff’s history protecting dark night skies can be found at FlagstaffDarkSkies.org, put together by the city’s Dark Sky Coalition.
Driving around the city at night, I saw the conscious efforts to protect dark skies in abundance. Fully shielded low-pressure sodium lights of a darker orange than most were the primary form of street lighting I saw. These lights were even placed within downtown Flagstaff’s restaurant and bar hub, providing an ample amount of lighting for any nighttime activities without the obnoxious glare from cool LEDs or unshielded lights. Further efforts are being made to continue to test new and developing street lighting technologies in hopes of continuing to reduce the city’s already low output of light pollution.
What I didn’t expect walking around Flagstaff at night, though was delighted to feel, was a deep sense of safety and coziness that came under these dark orange lights, with subtle and warm white lighting here and there for aesthetic purposes. It was refreshing to not be under a spotlight.
The other perk for being a dark sky city is that any nearby park or monument becomes a dark sky location. The three nearest to Flagstaff are Walnut Canyon national monument, Sunset Crater Volcano national monument, and Wupatki national monument. After dinner, we drove only eight miles from downtown to reach Walnut Canyon, but sadly the monument was closed. So, we headed for the next nearest, Sunset Crater Volcano.
The drive there took us through a forest of kind I have never known. Pines broke the stretches of plains, intermixed with shrubs, cacti, and tall grasses. There were also expanses of golden grasslands standing tall on a still night. When we arrived at Sunset Crater Volcano, we drove along just such a field. Mountains pockmarked with pines and covered in snow served as a breathtaking backdrop.
The moon was now 73 percent illuminated, but because of how dark these skies were, not only could the brightest stars still be seen, but thousands of others as well. The biggest change this caused was the total illumination of the landscape. The moon was bright enough now to make the night look like day through a monochrome filter.
Natural sky brightening like this was of once important to note, for it made travel or hunting easier at night (Gawboy and Morton), but frankly it continues to provide great lighting, especially for those going on walks or runs after the sun has set or bike commuters in rural towns. Observing the cycles of the moon for such reasons should make a comeback for the practical purposes lighting at night serves, though this way from a natural source.
This area was chosen as a hub for astronomy because of its consistently clear nights, and we got to experience just that – the only downside being that the nights are very cold. Now that we were used to somewhat warmer temperatures compared to our home in Minnesota, this was a bit of a shock. At 15°F, we shivered as we watched the stars, still no less grateful for the chance to be where we are, doing what we’re doing.