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Notes from the Valley landscape: Seeing stars, Mid-Valley style
Nighttime sky hereabouts offers a multitude of viewing opportunities
Kim Bock

I have spent a thousand hours gazing at the night sky and not a moment has been wasted.

When staring into the night sky, I sometimes feel an overwhelming sense of connection to past humans and pre-human beings who saw roughly the exact same sky I see now. That’s humbling for me and I realize that someone in current or future years will also be pondering this connection. I believe we are made of stardust. How cool is that?

It is a great blessing to have clear mountain nights and a hot tub. Friends and family know that one of my true obsessions is soaking almost every night and checking out the heavens. My poor skin is dry and itchy from the regular abuse. Body lotions of all kinds are my best friends. But I cannot help myself and tend to overdo it anyway. My view of the sky is nearly 360 degrees, with the eastern sky over Basalt Mountain being where most of the evening action is. The rising moon and constellations start their march from there and proceed over the Crown and onward to the western horizon. I am a moon child (Cancer) and love following the moon phases, but strong moonlight definitely hinders seeing stars, satellites and most meteorites.

More than 40 years of viewing has yielded many cosmic happenings. I distinctly remember seeing my first shooting star when I was at a high school party in suburban Houston, not exactly a dark-sky region. I’m not saying that I could have been in a slightly altered state of mind, but no one else saw it, so I doubted my own eyes having no previous experience with such a phenomenon. Before moving to El Jebel 30 years ago, my Colorado stargazing was limited to a few August vacations, or nights at Fort Lewis College when I wasn’t studying terribly hard, lol.

I have been fortunate to see Halley’s comet (mostly obscured by clouds), the Hale-Bopp comet and a couple of faint others, the names of which I cannot remember. While comets are wondrous, slow-moving, once-in-a-lifetime events, the normal nightly show can be far more exciting. A few shooting stars can be seen most dark nights. Several named “meteor showers” during the year can really spice things up. While it has been a few years since I’ve rousted myself up in the middle of the night to soak in the hot tub and count “shooters” during these showers, I find that viewing in the sane hours before 10 or 11 at night is also very rewarding.

The greatest of them arc brightly through most of the sky, leaving momentary trails of stardust. Others are barely a spark, so that you question whether it was real or not. The most stunning sight was the spectacle of space debris burning up on re-entry. I was at a dinner party and was the only person facing the window when a huge descending glob of fire, splitting into pieces, caught my eye. I jumped up in delight/terror, yelling “Look, look!” but in an instant it was gone. My friends thought I had gone a bit nuts and offered me no more wine that night.

On most clear nights I can spot several satellites silently passing overhead. My record number of satellites in one night is 13.  It took nearly two hours to tag this many, so my pruned-up fingers and toes took a while to recover! A few satellites fly west to east, but most are orbiting the earth north-to-south or south-to-north. There are cool phone apps you can use that show what satellites (and even airplanes) are traversing the sky. Ask Siri for “satellites overhead” or “planes overhead.”

I recognize most of the Northern Hemisphere’s common constellations and brightest stars and try to also follow the planets du jour. A couple of summers ago, the local astronomers’ club brought state-of-the-art telescopes to Crown Mountain Park. We regular folk got to see the rings of Saturn, some moons of Jupiter and nebulae. What a treat!

As the stars have become my quiet nighttime friends, I have associated a few of the brightest with special people in my life. My mom is a Taurus, so her star is Aldebaran, the red giant in the Taurus constellation. My husband is a Gemini, so he gets both Castor and Pollux, the twins within Gemini. Because of her steady and guiding influence, my sister gets Dubhe and Merak, the stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl, which always point to Polaris the North Star.

Recently I added to my list of nightly greetings the brightest star Sirius, the Dog Star, in memory of my beloved brother-in-law Paul. My daughters greet me nightly as the star group Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, as these girls are my personal crowning achievement.  

We are so lucky in the Roaring Fork Valley to have nature’s vivid nightly display. Dress warm and take a night walk. Let your eyes adjust and see the awesome sights. The definition of awesome is to inspire awe, so this word fits, doesn’t it?

Kim Bock has studied landscape architecture, worked in city planning, and has been a practicing arborist for 20 years. Living in the El Jebel area since 1989, she has been an active member and officer in the Pardon My Garden Club and spent 19 years as a member and chair of the Roaring Fork Planning Commission. Besides flower and vegetable gardening at her home, she loves hiking with her dogs and husband.