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Column: Life comes in clearer through telescope lens

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We didn’t bring our winter coats. It was Tucson, Ariz., after all, and the weather forecasts we checked before the trip suggested highs in the 60s to low 80s while the lows would be mostly in the 40s. A light jacket and a sweater would do just fine. Then again, we hadn’t decided until we were settled into our rooms that a visit to Kitt Peak Observatory was an adventure we wanted to experience.

I called for tickets. The voice told me it was cold up on the mountain, and we would be spending much of the three-hour tour outside. If we had hats and gloves, she said, we should consider bringing them. Winter coats would be a good idea, as well.

As anyone who travels knows, occasionally one must improvise. “We can dress in layers” we said, so Becky and I pulled on what garments we had, threw our rather thin fleece jackets in the back of the rental car and headed to the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation and Kitt Peak.

We climbed 12 miles up a twisting, narrow mountain road finally arriving near the top. The observatory site is a series of buildings housing 25 optical telescopes and two radio telescopes, the world’s largest collection of such scientific devices. It was obvious as we stepped out of the car that the air was much cooler than at the bottom of the mountain. Sure glad we were dressed in layers.

The mountain is the second highest peak on the Tohono O’Odham Reservation and is considered sacred. They call the mountain “Loligam” and say the summit is the “Garden of I’itoi” who is the nation’s elder brother deity. For this reason, the O’Odham nation agreed to allow the observatory access only if nothing would be built on its highest point.

Roy, one of the two astronomers who guided the tour, led our group up the road to catch the sunset. We couldn’t look directly at the sun, but as you might expect from an astronomer, he had it timed so that on his cue, we all turned to watched as the red ball slipped quickly behind the mountain range in the distance. Afterwards we all gathered in the visitor’s center before Roy and Chuck, the other astronomer, split us into two groups.

Roy’s group went back outside while Becky and I stayed with Chuck’s group to learn about binoculars and star charts. After the lesson, we took our night binoculars and our star guide and headed outside to look up.

The moon was just a sliver which was great for seeing other objects. (“Astronomers hate the full moon,” Chuck said.) The Milky Way was a white smear across the dome of the sky and reminded me how much we don’t see where we live back home. Even the sky above the farmland and woods of southern Johnson County is affected by light pollution from the cities to our north.

It was getting colder, and I was grateful to go back inside, but not for long because it was our group’s turn to go inside the big dome building which housed one of the telescopes.

I sat in the dark shivering while the group took turns looking at clusters of stars hundreds and thousands of light years away. The easy way Roy threw around the word “trillions” made me think he might have a future as a Washington politician. He, I should add, was wearing a thick parka and appeared to be quite comfortable.

Soon our tour was over, but our adventure was not. It was nighttime, after all, and that’s when astronomers work, and our headlights would be a hindrance.

For the first mile we would follow Chuck down the mountain with only our running lights. We remembered the hairpin turns and precipitous edges on the way up and prayed Chuck knew what he was doing. It was slow going, but eventually he signaled us to turn on our lights for the rest of the descent down the mountain.

We shed some of our layers driving back to the rooms. I thought about layers in other contexts. How the science that made those telescopes possible was built on the work of others going back to the ancients. How the mountain surely has had many names over time. How each time Becky and I have an adventure, we add another layer to this shared experience that is our relationship. How the world and life itself can be considered as an infinite number of layers.

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