A Trail of Stars
Paul J. Heidt
November 29, 2012
Maybe it is not so much what the the vision is, but rather how we pass this vision and dream on to the next generation. Maybe this is out of place, but I wish to share as maybe how we pass this on to the next ones. A Trail of Stars It was a few months after the twenty second year I had known this sprite when she ended up on my door step asking if I would like to take some time out to do some stargazing along the ‘trail’ that evening. The Three Rivers Trail was 30 some miles of old railroad right-of-way whose rails and timbers had since been replaced by crushed stone to make a surface for hiking and bicycling. Of all the people she could be with, all the friends of her generation, the girls in her band, the boys she would hang out with, here JT was at my door asking me, of all people, a person of 22 years of her senior, to go out to look at the stars. She always did have a loving kindness to all and always knew my fondness of looking out at the stars. I looked out to the street in front of my home to see her old blue beat-up truck parked at the curb and her cart with her telescope and gear loaded in the back. She said she had already mentioned to Sheriff Department that her truck would be sitting most of the night at the trail-side parking area and she would have a friend with her so she would be safe. How could I refuse the offer with a look that peered out from those puppy-dog eyes, so I grabbed my binoculars and a jacket, and we were on our way. For the month of August, most the time it would be hot and humid and the observation conditions would have been mostly poor with the warm air radiating out from the land after baking all day in the intense heat and sunlight. The weather for the last week had been unusually mild and the evening would cool down into the 50’s, necessitating the need for a jacket late in the evening and night time. We climbed into JT’s truck and headed out to the trail parking, which really was only about five minutes away. Having lived most of my life in a small town, everything seemed to only be maybe a five minute drive, when you chose to drive. Most places were not all that far to walk to or take a bicycle. With JT’s cart full of gear, the truck seemed to be a pretty good idea. We arrived at the parking area and unloaded the cart from the back of the truck. The cart was a hand-made rig with a nice sturdy, yet light weight box with two oversized bicycle tires on either side, making it very easy to pull. There were two handles fashioned with aluminum tubing on the front of the cart and a webbed harness to strap around ones’ waist and comfortably put the cart in tow. leaving, ones’ hands free. She had all of the essential diligently pack away in her cart, her little C-5 telescope, tripod, sky charts, binoculars, snacks, bottled water, two small motorcycle batteries to power the red night lights and her ‘scope drive, a portable radio (she always liked to listen to music on these outings), a two way radio in case we would run into any problems, a jacket and a blanket. I threw my jacket and binoculars in on the top of the stack and offered to play ‘horse’ for our walk down the trail. After being ‘hitched up’ to the rig, we started down the path. It would be about a two and a half mile walk to our observation point. The cart, even with its load, pulled rather easily over the trail. The path snaked its way along the eastern edge of town and along the side of a bluff with the eastern fork of the Des Moines River far below. All along this section, both sides where surrounded by tall trees and underbrush. With the evening getting late, the birds had started their songs and great eagle circled overhead, perhaps looking for fish for its evening meal. The trail would gradually drop in elevation to a point where we would cross the river. The river crossing was an old railroad trestle whose timber were now blackened with time and creosote and stood just a few feet off the river’s waters. The bridge was now decked with planks and railings to make it a safe traverse and spanned the river for perhaps a bit over 300 feet. It was so quiet here; we paused for just a moment to listen to the evening’s sounds and the motion of the water in the river below our feet. Our trek continued along the other side of the river and curved away along a shallow hillside. All along this trek, JT would be quietly humming or singing a song; she had such a pure tone in her voice and would sing songs that seem to hold special meaning in her life. We would also chat along the way, with subjects such as our jobs, new happenings in town, or just whatever came to mind. The trail would gradually recede from the riverside and a long, sweeping curve would take up to yet another smaller bridge, from just beyond would lay the place we would set up our observation point. The trail along this section was surrounded by farmer’s fields on either sides, or the occasional cow pasture. The sun was now getting low in this August’s western sky as we finished our journey to the site, a large clearing with good horizons to the west, south and north, and a somewhat obscured horizon to the east, as the land gradually rose up along a gentle hillside. The town was off to the northwest of us now, but the thicket of trees near the eastern edge of the city would block much of the glare of the street lights during the night. I unhitched myself from the cart, and JT and I started to get the gear unpacked. She found a nice level spot to set up the tripod; from the number of times I supposed she had been here on other occasions she made short work of the task. She next positioned her little ‘cassy’ C-5 onto the tripod and secured the mount. A give-away to the fact she had been here before, instead of waiting to do a polar alignment on the telescope, she aimed the ‘scope out to the south-western horizon and aligned it to a radio antenna atop a grain elevator setting about 12 miles in that direction. JT had said it worked that way close enough to keep the telescope on track, especially since she wasn’t doing any astrophotography anyway. I had to look at this for myself. The scope was set at 235.5 degrees and the strobe atop the tower was directly centered in the cross-hairs of the finder scope and direct center of the field of the main scope. After the poles and wires were set up for the night lights and the rest to the gear laid out in order, JT had pulled the eyepiece from the telescope and replaced it with another containing a solar filter. We took turns looking at the sun as it sank low the horizon, gradually turning from a circle to a flattened oval, with its surface peppered with dark spots. It gradually sank below the horizon and the skies started to darken. If the skies should stay clear over night, we would have an excellent night of stargazing. The moon was after its last quarter so it would not be rising until and hour or two before sunrise, thus giving as dark skies for most of the night. We sat on the blanket we laid out on the ground and waited for the sky to darken and the first stars to appear. JT had the radio turn on now and music played; the station was featuring tune from the ‘80’s that evening. Gradually the sky darkened and JT shouted out ‘first star” and pointed straight overhead. Knowing from its position and brightness, I knew it had to be Vega. More and more stars appeared and soon the ‘dipper’ shape of Ursa Major appeared, and to the south the teapot shape of Sagittarius took form. Seemed like it was taking forever for the sky to darken to its fullest, but then reminding me of a little girl so long ago I would tell stories about the stars to and she was so anxious for the skies to grow dark. Now that little girl had grown up and was teaching me about the subtleties of the music she loved to listen to and sing, and how each star she would look at would share its celestial song to her. It was this same grown up little girl that now was resetting the telescope to pear at our first target for the night. That star was Albireo. Of the stories I told her when she was younger, this star at this time of the year held special meaning and memories for her. Some of the memories held sadness, a memory of a big brother who was gone from this world at too young of age, a brother who would taunt her and tease her, yet was her protector and best friend. Years before, her parent had asked for me to be the godfather of their child, and then in that time of need, I lent a hand to help them. From having given birth to twin daughters to loosing a son in the matter of a week was very difficult to cope with. I would take JT in my care when they needed me to. JT had latched on to me as a sort of big brother, something that would last ever since. With my love of astronomy and the stars, I would tell stories about the stars and how some of them got their names, stories of kidnapped queens and heroes who would come to rescue them, stories of mighty hunters and the animals he would capture, only to set them free among the stars in the sky. I would tell her the story of a beautiful swan that was forever flying south to her winter nesting grounds. I would tell JT how this swan, Cygnus, was actually a magical princess named Maya Dörlan who could change into a swan and fly through the heavens to watch over her flock on Earth. I pointed out one special star to her, it was Albireo. I told her how if you could look at it closely, say with a telescope, instead of just one star, you could see two, one blue and one orange, and these stars were the eyes of Maya Dörlan. Somehow my stories must have help he cope with her loss. It was now this girl who was peering into the eyepiece of her telescope. Along the way, she would always refer to Albireo as Bobbie’s Star, in memory of her brother, and said he was there looking after her. It was always the star she would look for first, to see the two stars, the one that was blue and the one that was orange. We would take turns looking through her telescope. We would scan all through the sky and up and down the length of the Milky Way. It was so amazing enough to look at the band of stars that was our galaxy with the darkened sky we had out here on the trail, but for what we could see with just our eyes, that little ‘scope of hers would bring forth the image of a thousand more. Scanning down along this trail of stars brought us to Antares, which was now getting low in the southwestern sky. The red seemed to deepen so much more looking at it in the telescope. Even with it getting so low in the sky, the image was still sharp as the air that night was reasonably calm, cool, and dry…indeed rare for a late August night. I would lie on the blanket and point my binoculars along the Milky Way, forever amazed at how many stars were out there. The slow trek of stars would drift off to the west; the lonely red strobe of the radio tower flashed in the distance, standing vigilant over our night of observations. Andromeda was now rising up to a point now where we could get a nice look at the great galaxy contained within its boundaries. Even with my binoculars, the galaxy just looked like a fuzzy oval of light. JT had switched to a different eyepiece and I peered into the telescope, amazed in what I was looking at. The longer I looked the greater detail I could see. I could almost make out the spiral arms and the central region was a blaze of brilliant light. I thought to myself how many hundreds of billions of stars I must be looking at, all contained in this oval of light. Along side this oval of light was another smaller circle of light that was M32, companion to this Andromeda galaxy. It made me wonder if someone in this great galaxy I was looking at was looking back at the Milky Way and was in much awe as I was. JT and I took a break from the eyepiece for a while, sat back on the blanket and talked of our jobs, what was going on in our lives, and all of the many wonders we had been looking at that night. As we laid back and looked upward at the sky, we saw an occasional streak of light travel across our view, fast moving meteors that seemed to leave a trail of vapor in its wake. Given the time of the month, I had figured it was well past peak time for any Perseid meteors, but we both figures that these must have been a few tag-a-longs just there to impress us. After a brief while, we were both startled when a huge, bright bolide streaked out of the southeast and shot off toward the western horizon, splitting in two before disappearing from our view. Of what we had of an eastern horizon, the sky was starting to become awashed with a glow of light, yet we knew it was still far too early to be getting into sunrise. Forgetting what time of the month it was, we finally realized that it was the moon, now a day or so past its last quarter, starting to rise, yet still not quite visible to us with the land sloping up in that direction. As it rose higher, even in the phase it was in, was starting to wash out some of the dimmer stars. JT swung her telescope in the moon’s direction, replaced the eyepiece with one containing a lunar filter and a wider viewing angle, and we took turns looking at it, especially the terminator between the dark and lighter sides of our celestial visitor. The night was now late and the dawn was just hinting at its coming. We had spent a long time out here on the trail, enjoying every moment of our nightly observations. We had been so busy, so distracted, neither one of us had started to feel the lack of sleep settling in until now. We elected to get packed up and start heading back along the trail into town. Everything was put in its place and I hitched myself up to the cart, starting our journey back home. The moon was providing us with enough light to safely navigate along the path and we would spot the occasional glow of beady eyes of a fox or raccoon scampering across the path in front of us. We crossed the great old trestle again and witnessed the shimmer of moonlight on the river below. The ripple of the waters below sounded so peaceful, the rest of the world seemed so quite in these moments before dawn. Most of the way, JT was either humming or quietly singing a song, a voice so pure and a pitch so perfect it would it would find its way into the deepest parts of anyone’s soul. She was a rare true gift to this world, indeed. The sun was just rising when we made it back to where JT’s truck was parked. Just as we crossed the road to get to the parking area, on of the sheriff’s cars drove by , making their early morning rounds and checking up on us I suppose. The rest of the town would soon be waking up to this Saturday morning. We loaded the cart in the back and she drove me back to my place. I had asked her if she wanted to stop for some breakfast, but she said she wanted to get home and get some rest because he group was getting together that night for a long practice session. Even though JT worked the night shift most of the time, I could tell she was ready to get some sleep. She dropped me off and headed off to her place. I settled in to get some rest, but my mind was still full of image from our night’s worth of observations. It would be a night I would never forget. JT was always a good and kind friend. Just about a year ago, sadness struck when I received a call that JT had collapsed at work. I was told that she was on life support, that she had something wrong with her heart, and didn’t think she would survive. Her parents and sisters had been called, but I , too, stayed at the hospital as much as I could. A few days later, in the evening when I was there, I sat by her side…she slipped away from this life, never to awaken again. I will never forget this person in all the days I am allowed to remain in this world. I will remember stories of magical princess that flew among the stars, the beauty she would create with each song she would sing. I would close my eyes and see images of her driving that old truck. The memories will last forever. Most of all, I will remember one evening years ago when that girl named Justice and I took a walk along a trail of stars. In Memory of Justice Katherine Kelly May 23, 1976 – June 28, 2004 Shining Amongst the Stars
They are Watching the Skies for You!
Our researchers, worldwide, do absolutely critical work.
Asteroid 2012DA14 was a close one.
It missed us. But there are more out there.