Cosmic Debris: Watching the Meteor Shower Next to the Gunks
"Uhhhhhhh...I can't feel my feet. I can't feel my feet." Dopey laughter drifts out from the darkness in response. And then comes the harsh response: "That's not because of the weed." Pause. "You idiot." And laughter.
A million freezing light-years away...
Actually it's just New Paltz, upstate in Ulster County, at 3:45 in the morning, one of those cold, lucid nights that you get in autumn, when the sky's clear, and you stand out there in the rural emptiness and crane your neck up and are shocked to find that you?yes, you yourself?are the point around which the whole starry universe revolves. It's two Sunday mornings ago, and we've all assembled?tourists from the city like us, plus all the creatures of granola New Paltz, such as the lanky, stoical middle-aged bearded telemarkers, and the slackjawed Zen rock-climbers, and the fungal elfin hippies from the local SUNY campus, and the big guffawing earthy backpacker chicks?to watch, in fact, the great meteor shower.
New Paltz sits about 10 miles west of the Hudson River in a valley that dead-ends right into the Shawangunk Mountains, the famous granite cliffs of which attract hordes of patient, admirable human beings who climb them. The road up out of the valley switches back along the cliffs before heaving itself through a cleft and shooting out along the plateau, Catskill-bound. Almost at the top of the road, there's a parking turnout, from which you can look back eastward at what's in the daytime a charming fertile valley, but that's now a purple void, scattered with lights. Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, those grand slums, cast their lavender auras up into the distant sky, the luscious luminous exhalations of once-thriving river cities that now hover on the edge of death.
And, when you look up, you see the meteor shower's many, many shooting stars. By 4:15 a.m. the shower's thick. The sky?especially the eastern sky?is freaking out. At first we watch the interstellar festivities in pious silence. Cars are jammed at all angles into the turnoff, and parked along the shoulder of the road. Hundreds of people, here in the middle of the night, mill around between the ticking engines, swaddled in fleece, their heads craned at the southeastern horizon, bumping gently into each other. Whip whip whip whip whip: there's a flurry of shooting stars, arcing across the sky. Each pulls behind it a trail of a different thickness and intensity, and of a slightly different color, and each burns out at a different point. You imagine you can almost hear the stars hissing and popping and crackling as they whip and ping through the atmosphere; but you really can't; all you can hear is the music of 150 locals moaning whoooaaaa in reverent unison. Forty meteors per minute, we're told, so that everywhere you look in the sky there's some action. Whoooosh, lines intersect each other: some stars arc down in slow motion, leaving thick, lingering blue-red smudges against the sky, like descending flares. I'm reminded of the Indian legend about how god discards the sliver of the old moon by grinding it into shards, which he casts across the sky.
I'm reminded also of the fact that there's a one-in-5000 chance that some piece of interstellar debris will hit the Earth this century and wipe out every last bit of life, even down to the lichens and the roaches. The mountain looms, the valley twinkles, the sky hisses and streaks and screams and glows. The atmosphere here is sufficiently serious that when a passing car swings its headlights across our group, people groan. And taking a flash photograph means getting snarled at by blinking hippies.
But how long can this churchgoing atmosphere last? By 4:30 a.m. we're all freezing. The smell of pot drifts over. ("I can't feel my feet. I can't feel my feet.") Everybody's face is numb. Everybody's neck hurts from staring upward at this heavenly conflagration, at this hurlyburly of Eternity, at these rockets that roar at blasphemous speeds across the voids. And then:
"Chrissy! Chriiiiiiiisssyyyyyyy! Where are you! Where are you, Chrissy! I need a cigarette! I need a cigarette!"
The energy shifts. People loosen up and start laughing. People wander around, grinning and wiped out in the dark. Way off, on the eastern horizon, you can see what might be a suspicion of dawn: a band of aquamarine light that vanishes as soon as you look at it, so that you're not sure you've seen it at all. Anyway, dawn's coming, and with it, the usual grateful explosion of noise. On the seashore, the hours before dawn mean that the seabirds begin to call; in New York City, the old men come and rifle through your trash looking for cans; in New Paltz, on the morning of the meteor shower?of this explosion of galactic energy?the approach of dawn seems to be marked by heightened exuberance amongst hippies and locals.
Kids groan to each other, shining penlights?and who's even looking at the sky anymore? We're like an army encamped for the night in this enchanted mountain darkness. If you miked the whole scene, what would you get? Bonghit gurglings, oaths at the cold, people stepping on each other, bits of conversation and bellowings:
"But you didn't tell me we were gonna be going to a meteor shower. I thought I was gonna be in a warm bar, drinking beer."
"Chrissy!" And laughter. And more hippie-chick earthy bellowing: "Chrissy!"
"You sure are one loud woman!"
Bellowing, laughing: "Oh yeh I'm loud all right! Oh I'm the loudest girl here, all right. Oh yeh, I'm sure loud! I'm the loudest woman here! CHRISSY! I need a cigarette!"
Engines are starting all around, kids are walking back to the warmth of their cars, heading home. The sky's becoming an afterthought. Everything's fraying at its edges. Cackling faces shine behind lighters. A blinking gopher of a hippie sticks his head out of the mushroom tent he's pitched in the margin on the other side of the road barrier.
I love these upstate hippie college towns. If I could do it all over again, I'd go to SUNY New Paltz, and be a predawn hippie, stumbling about, merrily stoned out of my mind under the sky. Toward the end, someone opens his car doors and blasts the radio: Aerosmith keens "Dream On." It's like, Laser Aerosmith, out here in the rustic north. But in the past, a meteor shower would have been considered a portent. And the savages would have huddled in their log shelters as hundreds of suns fell from the sky.
Scores of kids and beer-stained locals and hippies and climbers, loping happily up the mountain road, just before dawn.
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