In a conversation with my wife, before we left on vacation, I explained why I wanted to leave Southern California. Living in its oceanic conurbation had thinned my spirit. I need, I said with urgency, to be where the night sky is not obscured by city light. I need to stand on a hill under a clear night sky and see the stars. To be close to them. Since I moved to sprawling suburb thirty-nine years ago, I have only twice seen the celestial sphere in its vast splendor. Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I took an evening road trip to Death Valley. I drove my MGB with the top down. We were alone on the long, geometrically straight road up the valley. It was nearly midnight. The heavens were black and sprayed with infinite white stars. The stars were so close, that raising my hand out of the car, I could drag a wake of stars as if I were trolling still lake water off a motor boat. The experience was so exhilarating that we were speechless. On another occasion, we stood at the top of a San Bernardino mountain where we had a cabin at the 5400 foot level. It was August. We were above the inversion layer. Below us, a blanket of marine haze hid the endless Southern California city. Above us, the air was crystalline. The stars scattered as nearly in disorder across the inverted bowl of the night as if a Hollywood backdrop. A meteorite shot horizontally across the mid-horizon, surprising us. We thought it was an omen. As we walked down the mountain side, we felt thrill rise in us and pound our hearts.
Those rare events were all the night sky offered in nearly four decades. The celestial drama had been but a stranger, who appeared unexpectedly in our lives. I felt the visitor's disappearance as loss. Over time, lesser concerns fell off me like layers of unnecessary clothing. But the celestial guest's departure grew in significance, a repressed memory that emerged into consciousness, fragment by fragment, as experiences accidentally focused a searchlight into this or that dark corner of my mind. Eventually, loss felt like alienation. Perhaps I should have expected my predicament. Since humanity's prehistoric emergence, we have lived in two worlds, feet on the ground, minds in the heavens. Every night we would observe our privileged position. Now, only within the last few hundred years, we have buried ourselves in the dark illumination of cities, blind to the soaring spiritual exhilaration above us, standing aside from the world. So I arrived at the understanding that I was in the wrong place and the wrong time; and that, before I die, I need to find the right place and the right time.
Several days after we arrived in West Virginia on our business vacation, we returned late at night from Beckley to Greenbrier County. We are staying at a friend's cottage in the middle of her farm land, surrounded only by miles of grassy pasture, small herds of horses, cattle, goats, and sheep. The only lights were yellow dots of distant farm houses. We were unaware it was a moonless night, but felt the black air as an unfamiliarity. I parked our rental car in the middle of the field and we exited toward our dark cottage. I glanced upward. The sky was clear. From horizon to horizon, the sky was painted with millions of stars. And through the middle was the Milky Way. The air was so clear and still that I believed I could see individual stars in the infinite splash of galactic stars that belted the bowl of the heavens. I fell back against the car for support and to rest my head. I was hypnotized. I had taught the Copernican revolution and Galileo's astronomical discoveries every year of my professorial career; now I was the Italian astronomer. When the stars are unveiled, every time anyone sees them, they are seen for the first time. Galileo called the stars messengers. They are. And I know their message. I am home. I am ready.