In 2013, I decided to finally realize a lifelong dream, despite the considerable cost and logistics. I flew all night long at eighty percent of the speed of sound to Santiago, Chile, where I joined a group on a fantastical trek along the Ruta de las Estrellas. The Route of the Stars.
From an arid mountaintop high in the bone-dry Atacama Desert, where it has not rained since 1973, where there is no light pollution, negligible air pollution, and insignificant atmospheric moisture, I saw a night sky few others are privileged to see these days. Many who live out their lives in heavily populated urban areas have not the slightest idea what the universe actually looks like.
It was spellbinding. The planet Venus was casting my shadow onto the barren mountaintop, and the elusive zodiacal light softly tinted the night. The Pleiades—those ancient Seven Sisters—were stunning, with their own scattering of jewel-like attendant lesser stars I’d never been able to see with only my eyes. The sprawling Milky Way was heart-breaking in its riverine splendor. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and the beautiful Southern Cross were boldly prominent. From my yard back home, the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula had never been more than faint smudges on the clearest of nights. From the Atacama they seemed almost touchable. I lay on my back for hours with a pair of binoculars, utterly enthralled.
Our small group also got to scrutinize the incredible panoply in detail over two nights through large telescopes, which burst 47 Tucanae into a dense cluster of more than a billion suns, quickened the heart by plucking out an astonishing super-giant blood-red star, and revealed abstract distant nebulas and galaxies in all their glory.
The experience filled up my whole being, and I’ve never been so glad I decided to actually carry out a dreamed adventure. The price was insignificant when weighed against the benefits to my soul. In fact, in retrospect, it would have been worth almost any cost to me.
A number of people have told me they want to write a book someday. For those and for others who harbor longed-for achievements and adventures in their hearts, please bear in mind two of my own rediscovered life guidelines:
Each of us has only a brief time to be alive and aware on this beautiful borrowed planet.
And, near the end of those allotted days, not a thousand sad Shouldas will begin to equal a solitary Didit.
I hope you’re getting ready for the total solar eclipse next month, and that you’ll travel enough to be in the narrow path of totality. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Don’t let it go by as yet another Shoulda.