The next day, we drive over to Limpia Crossing, where I meet amateur astronomers like Allen Gilchrist, a retired research scientist who spent years working for oil-industry companies in Houston and carting around his telescope on vacations. He and his wife chose Fort Davis for their retirement in large part because of the darkness, and he bought a small observatory dome, which he's called Stonecrest, at the edge of his driveway. Leading me inside, where Prokofiev is playing softly in the background on an old boombox, he shows me some of the dazzling photographs he's made with his scope, one of the most impressive being the Lagoon Nebula, a colorful interstellar cloud that's part of Sagittarius. Amateur astronomers are like birdwatchers: Some focus on stars in our solar system, others on galaxies far beyond our own. You might be nerdily obsessed with the sun, or the moon, or seeking out supernovas or asteroids undiscovered by professional scientists. "There are only so many large telescopes in the world, so this is one of the few sciences left where amateurs can actually make contributions to the professional community," Wren says. "I mean, you don't hear about amateur particle physicists."
After my visit to McDonald, I spend the night in Big Bend National Park, in the newly retrofitted Chisos Basin. The main lodging area has dim, recessed lighting only where absolutely necessary: near doors and at foot level on walkways. It's very easy to get around, but any glow is muted and earthbound. A path from the main lodge leads to a series of stone cottages, built in the 1940s by the WPA, which is where I'm staying. While most of the park looks as austere as the landscape in a Road Runner cartoon, Chisos is a lush bubble of high desert ecosystem, notably cooler, with pine trees lining distant hills and animals you wouldn't expect to see in a normal desert: I spot a white-tailed deer with massive, goofy ears and a petite gray fox dragging an impressive tail.
As the sun sets, I sit on the back porch of my cottage and watch the stars come out. It's sublime in a way I'm not quite prepared for. I have a book I'm enjoying, and some work to do on my laptop. But I can't tear myself from this dizzying, unfamiliar view. At McDonald Observatory, my first glimpse of the night sky made me feel tiny and alone, just as Bill Wren described. Tonight, though, simply having been given the opportunity to witness these stars, the beauty of this entire yawning cosmic spectacle, even if it's just a fleeting speck of a moment as we hurtle through space and time into an empty black void – it feels like a gift. Tonight I don't think of explosions. I think about how the stars must have looked to our ancestors, millennia ago: like tiny torches held out for us by invisible agents. The fact that we might be the only living beings in the universe bearing witness to this canopy of light can make everything feel pointless and random, sure, but, conversely, and maybe especially if you've spent the past few hours sipping from nip-size little airplane bottles of Dewar's (discreetly poured into a paper coffee cup you discovered back in your cottage), it can also make you feel special. Chosen, even – if only by natural selection, and by our own human craving for discovery and transcendence.
I pop the trunk of my rental car's hatchback and lie down in the bed like I'm at a drive-in. One of the neighbors wanders out to his own car to grab something, using a flashlight. The insect drone is one part squeaking mattress, one part teakettle whistle, and it blends with the sound of the wind, rolling in like a tide. I remember an art exhibit I saw once that included a work – well, "work" – by the playwright August Strindberg, who thought he could capture images of the cosmos by leaving exposed photo plates out all night. The images he produced were beautiful, and they could pass for frozen images of the night sky. Strindberg was disappointed to eventually discover that what he'd thought was the universe was likely no more than random scatterings of dust.
I'm starting to feel a dull ache in my neck, but I don't want to go inside. A car pulls out of the parking lot, briefly lighting up a tree and making it look plastic, overlit, part of a diorama at a natural-history museum. I wander back toward the cottage and suddenly, I'm startled by something huge moving toward me. It turns out to be a spider, transformed into a B-movie monster by one of the low-wattage IDA-approved lights, its legs rearing up in shadow against a wooden post.
I thought about my first night in Fort Davis, which happened to be July 5. Bill Wren had suggested we check out the town's fireworks display, and so I'd ended up at a party at his ex-brother-in-law's place, stretched out on the grass with a bunch of strangers, staring out at a fusillade of patriotic explosions – even then, tipping my head backward to peer at the stars, which struck me as far more compelling and exotic than any man-made pyrotechnics. The bursting of a new rocket would briefly force me to look straight ahead. And there, in front of me, a whole new galaxy of colored lights would be streaking the horizon, having appeared out of nothing. And then, just as quickly, it would be gone.
After a while, I lay back on the cool grass, giving up on the fireworks, and started looking for Arcturus, a bright star Wren had pointed out earlier. I knew it was up there somewhere.