Hey friend, wake up
Can’t you tell you are sleeping?
How far can you go with unopened eyes?
– “What’s the Difference?”, Scott McKenzie, 1967
Our years in Taos, New Mexico encouraged us to keep our eyes wide open. We lived at some 7,500 feet elevation in clear, dry air, and at night it seemed much of the visible universe dropped low enough for us to reach up and grab a star or two. Those kinds of starry nights happen occasionally here in Maine, but not quite with the same electric power of the high-altitude Southwest. At night in Taos, one can truly see.
In late March 1997, we opted for a two night road trip down to Silver City, NM, a smallish city of some 10,000 people sitting at about 6,000 feet above sea level, tucked just south of Gila National Forest in the state’s southwest quadrant. It’s hard not to like Silver City – it’s a congenial place, part old-timey western (Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy spent a lot of time here), part boutique-y and New Age-y. People who lived here made a conscious choice to be seduced into isolation, away from cities, airports, major highways.
At night after supper we drove east of town away from its lights into the darkness, found a dirt road that crept up a hillside, and we parked. We wanted to watch the skies.
The date? March 23. The comet Hale-Bopp was rising brightly in the east-northeast, just as the moon had risen earlier to share much of the same space in the east. But not just any old moon – a full moon about to turn blood-red during a lunar eclipse. It was a “partial” eclipse, but from where we watched it was all but completely blocked out. Now let’s throw in a few streaking Gamma-Normid meteors just to liven it up a bit…
Hale-Bopp, March 1997, Wikipedia Commons. I could find no images of both the comet and lunar eclipse in one shot, but I’m sure there are some out there.
Like certain other astronomical events, the pairing of the comet and the eclipsed moon – along with some meteors – would likely be a once-in-your-life experience. We watched for an hour or more with deep appreciation for what the skies can show us, at these lofty elevations.
Back to sea level…
“Watch the Skies” is a kind of tag or slogan associated with Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released to wide acclaim in 1977. One of its not-too-subtle messages is that when we don’t look up, we miss things. Most of us, most of the time, have our eyes roughly on the edge of our personal ecliptic – straight ahead, toward one horizon or another. What got the film’s hero Roy Neary into trouble (and later, into an epiphany) was sticking his head out his truck window to look up and getting zapped by a spaceship with a sharp light carrying an implanted subliminal vision.
Some ten years before Hale-Bopp, when I lived in the Northeast, I was driving shortly after dusk some summer night to retrieve my daughter from a birthday party in a neighboring town. My car then was an aging Subaru with a sun roof, which was wide open. This town was largely rural, with some longish empty roads. In a sequence that took only a few seconds I had one of the strangest experiences of my life. Something bright was over me. I looked up and saw what I thought was the belly of a jetliner, 737-sized, a mere fifty feet or so over my car and lit up with multi-colored lights – but moving too slowly to fly. First thought: that plane is going to crash. I didn’t hear jet engine sounds – something else that made no sense: a whooshing kind of silence. The “plane” then shot ahead of me over the roadway, became a large bright orange light and vanished at terrific speed into some trees about a half mile away. I waited for an explosion that never came. No crash, no sound, just darkness.
Later, I parceled out the event into recognizable pieces and understood everything that sighting could not be, leaving one last possibility that many would say is simply impossible. It taught me that some things can be impossible, but at the same time true. Eyes and ears don’t lie. Instead, the brain reshapes what’s anomalous into something coherent with its existing wiring. Yeah, a plane. Right. Had to be.
This would become, like Hale-Bopp and a lunar eclipse ten years later, a once in a lifetime thing. You can remember it, marvel at it, and then let it slip away.
Easy peach schnapps
Back to a bit of fun normality:
My wife (and Hale-Bopp cohort from the story above) likes an occasional taste of peach schnapps after dinner or over ice cream, but she finds the usual commercial peach schnapps a little sweet for her tastes.
So we make our own – along the same lines as rhubarb schnapps from an earlier post. You can make this in minutes, then wait a few months before sampling.
You’ll need (for one quart):
- 1 quart or so of vodka. I always get the bargain brand for this.
- 1 1/2 peaches, sliced into eight pieces per peach (12 total). It’s critical, in our house, to use Georgia peaches, which are still in season for the next couple of weeks or so. Georgia peaches are supreme!
- 2-3 tbsp. sugar (add a little more if you like it sweet)
- put the 12 peach slices into a quart Mason jar.
- put in the sugar
- pour in the vodka, leaving a half inch of headspace or so.
- cap the jar tightly and shake it gently until the sugar is fully dissolved.
- store in a cool dark place, and gently shake the jars every few days for the first couple of weeks.
You can drink this nearly anytime, but the flavor improves with age: we usually wait about 3-4 months.
There you have it.