Updated: Jan 10, 2022
“Wyoming is a sacred place,” Connor said as we set out across the least densely populated state in the contiguous U.S. And it is. Rolling hills with waves of snow pockmarked amongst the stout alpine vegetation gave way to jagged rock faces. Always in the distance stood buttes so wide and so flat on top as to appear like the stumps of giant trees. Wooden wind-blocks lined the miles of edges of fields that stretched into the horizon. Scattered across these fields were herds of sheep and cows black as night.
For miles and miles we drove, seeing only the occasional passing car or small community. This, of any landscape, is one where dark sky can call home. Besides the miles of barbed wire fences, there was often little to indicate the presence of humans. No lights illuminated these grasses, shrubs, rocks, and wildlife. Day did turn to night as the Sun set and the Moon rose. Perpetual light, perpetual day was not the norm.
As I spoke with my thesis advisor over the phone on the first day, she urged me to consider the psychological effects of living in a perpetually lit environment. What happens to your sense of self when you’re always able to be scrutinized by others? It must be the case that if you can always be seen that you become more self-conscious of your appearance, highlighting both faults and attractions.
What happens to your notion of privacy when nothing can remain concealed by shadows? For one, why would someone want to not be seen? Is it because they have malice intentions, or because they need a moment to be alone? Does being seen really protect people against those who wish to remain unseen for the harm they aim to cause and get away with? Or, does an increased visibility of all on city streets lead to more profiling of the same suspected perpetrator?
These were the questions I was pondering as we traversed a gravel mountain pass through public lands to arrive in Utah, with our next stop being Steinaker State Park, located just outside the town of Vernal.
Connor and I arrived around 6:30 p.m. and went straight to a local steakhouse, treating ourselves to our first purchased meal on this trip. Up until now, we had been living off pre-packed sandwiches and stopping once to make mac ’n cheese amongst the mountains. Filled to the brim and fighting the growing urge to crawl in bed, we checked into our hotel and took care of some work.
It wasn’t until 9:04 p.m. that we forced ourselves out from under the covers, closed our computers, and set out to go and see the stars.
Driving along Main Street at night, I was feeling ambivalent about Vernal’s approach to street lighting. On the one hand, a majority of the lighting fixtures were equipped with low-pressure sodium lights – the orange ones – though these were acorn shaped, placed every ten meters along Main, and had no cut-off, so light was diffused in all directions. That said, these types of lights were only placed along Main Street, with outdoor lighting everywhere else being accomplished by LED street lights that were fully shielded and placed at, what appeared to me, as only necessary locations. Back allies and empty parking lots sat dark.
It is because of this intentionality in street lighting that it is possible for an International Dark Sky Park to be located just a few minutes drive from downtown Vernal, which is, albeit only a modest sized town.
When we got to the park, we continued along its one winding road until we were surrounded on both sides by foothills. We got out and looked up. Despite being so close to a town with no shortage of street lighting, thousands of stars were still visible, with the shadow of the Milky Way stretching over the dome of the sky like a halo. Orion, Taurus, Gemini, and Ursa Major were clearly visible to the naked eye, and Pisces was hiding behind the now nearly half-lit Moon.
We tightened our boots and hiked to the top of the nearest foothill. A couple hundred feet up from the road, we admired Steinaker Reservoir, the surrounding snowy hills, Vernal, and a dark night sky all in one panorama – what I have to imagine is a rather rare view, and one that proves that dark skies need not be a rarity for urban dwellers.
Living with dark skies and all the health and experiential benefits they bring can be a reality for all American communities if everyone contributes to reducing their own output of light pollution.
How can you help reduce the spread of light pollution at home and within your community? Turn off all your outdoor lights at night or just close your blinds. Put timers, dimers, or motion sensors on your outdoor lighting. Download DarkSkyMeter and participate in the collection of light pollution data in your area. If you want to go big, petition your local and state governments to reduce the impact of light pollution by retrofitting existing outdoor lighting infrastructure with more dark sky friendly alternatives, like what Minneapolis, MN is doing with their street lighting policy.
The choice is up to us.