The edge of night

Times Staff Writer

We are sprawled flat on our backs on a sandstone slab, soaking in darkness this August night with the satisfaction of Iditarod dropouts basking in a wintertime tropical sun.

Above us, the sky pulsates with 11,000 visible stars. We can pick out the Pleiades, Andromeda and Perseus’ double cluster as shooting stars whisk by, the last of the Perseids meteor shower. Mars burns feverishly. The Milky Way, thick with stars, forms a wide silver arch over our heads.

We are deep inside Canyonlands National Park at an outlook called Grand View Point, one of the darkest spots in the United States: 57 miles from the Interstate 70 headlights, 33 miles from the nearest stoplight, 27 miles from a gas station sign, 12 from an electrical outlet.

This is land so savage and remote that outlaws from Butch Cassidy to George Hayduke could vanish within it. Its canyons can swallow up adventurers like Aron Ralston, pinned under a boulder for five days until he cut off his forearm, rappelled down a canyon and walked five miles before being rescued.

Yet even here, at 3:30 a.m., we cannot escape the light.

The faint dome to the east is Moab, population 4,479, 30 miles beyond the canyons. Green River glows to the north, Monticello and Blanding to the south. And those moving orbs are cars flying down Route 46 near the Colorado state line.

Light by light, we are losing sight of the unknown. The universe awash in stars — a source of wonder and inquiry since civilization began — is being obliterated by mega-wattage spilling into the sky from every corner: malls, airports, ballparks, theme parks, billboards, car dealerships, miniature golf courses, the neighbor’s driveway.

Forty percent of Americans live under night skies so bright that their eyes no longer have to adjust to night vision. Two-thirds of the U.S. population cannot see the Milky Way, and more than half of today’s young people have never seen it at all.

That is why a rangy National Park Service scientist named Dan Duriscoe, LED headlamp slung around his neck, has the lugged a camera-telescope to the brink of a cliff that drops 1,280 feet to the White Rim Shelf and then 1,000 more to the Colorado River.

Grand View is “the edge of the world,” he says, and then falls silent, hypnotized by the stars.

Like the images of Eliot Porter, who rafted through Glen Canyon in the early 1960s to document its beauty before the dam gates closed to create Lake Powell, the pictures Duriscoe takes here, if nothing else, will remind us of what the West once looked like.

From above

Hundreds of miles above Grand View Point, a U.S. Air Force satellite hurtles westward across the continent, snapping images of the glittering New York megalopolis, a jeweled string of Midwestern cities, then Denver and Salt Lake City and, finally, the white glare of Southern California. Within these brackets of bright light is a scattering of dark splotches where Duriscoe and two other Night Sky Team members measure the penetration of light into national parks.

Emerging in the evenings with the moths and night lizards, the team has visited two dozen parks to record thousands of night-sky images. The lights of Phoenix reach 140 miles into Organ Pipe National Monument. Los Angeles lights have been detected at Pinnacles National Monument, 225 miles north. In Death Valley, a blob seen with the naked eye from Dante’s View turns out to be the spotlight beam atop Las Vegas’ Luxor Hotel.

When Duriscoe, 47, and his Night Sky Team colleague, 25-year-old Angie Richman, meet in Moab to take readings at Canyonlands and Arches national parks, the forecast is foreboding, with thick clouds threatening to eclipse the stars. Already, summer storms have postponed this trip once, and they have just days to finish before the moon grows bright enough to smother the faintest stars.

Twilight falls as they drive uphill through Canyonlands, passing the last tourists. Saddled with heavy backpacks and hard-shell suitcases, they hike through sweet-smelling juniper and pinion pine to reach the ledge. The cliffs below dim to a rose-purple glow, then vanish. The stars take over.

Duriscoe and Richman work swiftly in the dark, assembling a portable observatory. They snap cables to an RV battery strong enough to power a telescope, computer and camera for three nights of star-watching. Although they have done this job a hundred times, setup takes more than an hour.

Finally, a telescope barrel the size and shape of an Electrolux vacuum cleaner aims upward. Duriscoe clicks a computer key to start the shooting. Every 30 seconds, it emits a whirring sound, audibly shifts position and records another image. Attached is a highly sensitive CCD camera, cooled to minus-18 degrees Celsius to ensure image quality. It will snap 108 photographs in 54 minutes.

Midnight passes, and the sun’s warmth ebbs from the sandstone. A wrapper crackles in the darkness, Richman’s Kava mint chocolate bar. Duriscoe swigs coffee from a 20-ounce cup filled earlier at the Mavericks gas station.

The laptop screen glows softly, attracting moths from across the canyons. Richman, long hair falling out of a wool cap, directs a penlight held in her mouth at the keyboard, checking the telescope alignment.

Duriscoe will later merge the images to form a 360-degree compilation of the Canyonlands night sky, complete with bands of city lights rimming the edges. Back at his office in Death Valley National Park, he is creating color-coded records of every park he visits. Purple indicates darkness and red, the brightest man-made light. The Canyonlands image is mostly purple. The one from the Santa Monica Mountains is almost entirely yellow and red.

After 4 a.m., they leave Canyonlands to go to sleep with draperies shut tight against the white-hot Utah sun. By noon, Dan is eating pancakes and home fries at the Moab Diner, gray-flecked brown hair mussed and eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. The GPS-guided telescope has been acting up, unable to find true north on its own. He tinkered with settings and angles so late last night that Orion began rising, and the Big Dipper sank nearly to the horizon.

In a caffeine blur, he wonders whether children will perceive the universe differently if they see stars only indoors, on TV or a computer screen. Even the washed-out stars of suburban skies pale next to video games.

“Young people are inundated with sound bites,” he says, “and the process of looking at the night sky is not a quick, dramatic one. To get to know the sky takes time and patience.”

When Richman was 8, she started sleeping on her family’s backyard trampoline in Lehigh, Utah, so she could stare at the night sky. She persevered through wind and snow until her teens. In college, she majored in astrophysics. Duriscoe’s love of the dark springs from his boyhood in Van Nuys, where he strained to see stars beyond the glare of a night golf course.

He read Desert Solitaire at age 16 and became enamored of Edward Abbey, author of such environmental classics as “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Abbey had worked at Arches as a seasonal park ranger in the late 1950s, and recorded how, even then, civilization was encroaching on nature.

When Duriscoe set out to find a light-testing site at Arches, he chose a spot a few hundred yards from the former site of Abbey’s trailer. He spent most of a night there, camped on a sandstone flat near Balanced Rock, an egg-shaped boulder perched atop a stone fulcrum. Judging from Abbey’s descriptions in “Desert Solitaire,” this could be the spot where he watched Venus glow and tried to visualize the place of humanity in the universe.

But today, who has the time to watch stars? It may be a luxury that shepherds and sailors could afford a century ago, but we cannot.

The diner empties and the coffee turns cold as Duriscoe ponders why we need stars in a world of satellites, planetariums and the Internet. Maybe the night sky is our best reminder of our place in the universe. Some people look up and see proof of a higher power. Others find the heavens unsettling, even fearsome.

“You’re face to face with the universe,” he says. “You can look up there, and you don’t see any way that humanity can make a difference. I don’t know if I’ve come to terms with it, with all my time out there.”

From Main Street

High above Moab on the deck of the Sunset Grill, Richman is critiquing the lighting of north Main Street. A motel with a tall, floodlit entrance sign flunks. But she commends the Super 8 for its shielded parking-lot lights that channel light downward. She points out the distinctive white-blue glare of old-style mercury vapor streetlights, then the soft orange-pink of less costly sodium vapor.

The National Park Service launched the Night Sky Team after a 1999 study of 189 parks found two-thirds reporting light pollution. But a broader fight for dark skies began in the Southwest, led by astronomers fearful that artificial light would taint the nation’s clearest skies. In 1988, they founded the International Dark Sky Assn. Its message: Lighting that protects night skies is efficient and cost-effective.

Arizona, New Mexico and other states and cities have instituted regulations. California lags. State energy commissioners, acting to increase energy efficiency, next month may adopt new outdoor lighting standards that promote shielded lighting and lower bulb voltage. Dark-sky advocates call the standards weaker than those in other Southwestern states.

The state Environmental Quality Act requires government agencies and developers to evaluate the aesthetics of new projects, including their impacts on day and night views. But that is just one of 90 criteria.

National parks are rethinking their lighting plans. At Yellowstone, the GE Foundation is financing a project to reduce sky glow from buildings near Old Faithful and other sites. But parks have no power to demand that neighboring landowners and cities lessen glare. The 1916 Organic Act, which created the park system, calls for protecting scenery and other resources for future generations. It does not specifically mention light.

The Night Sky Team’s founder, park service scientist Chad Moore, cheerfully predicts that cities close to parks will step up to protect tourism and lower electric bills.

“Sooner or later, the municipalities of the Los Angeles Basin will be retrofitting lights,” Moore promised. “I see a lot of intractable issues in the environment — the spotted owl, the loss of biodiversity — and I look at this one, and it’s easy. We could have this fixed in 10 years if we wanted to.”

For now, the program has a full-time staff of two. Its $80,000 annual budget must cover expensive technical gear. Even if Duriscoe and Richman visit two parks every new moon — and if the skies stay clear — it will take six years to visit the parks reporting light pollution.

From below

After two nights of stargazing, Grand View Point feels like a small, self-contained planet, like the ones in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s whimsical ink drawings for “The Little Prince.” When we stand, we feel abnormally tall and slightly light-headed, as if we could lift off at any moment.

Duriscoe muses in the dark. He recalls a chapter of “Desert Solitaire” in which Abbey joins the manhunt for a missing amateur photographer. The corpse is found under a juniper at Grand View Point, bloated and eaten by ravens. Abbey returns home to sit under the stars. He imagines how he must look to a sharp-eyed vulture above: a tiny creature dwarfed by desert, mountains, oceans and, beyond earth, “that ultimate world of sun and stars whose bounds we cannot discover.”

Maybe the answer is that simple: We need the stars to remind us of the undiscoverable.

The next night, Mars draws closer to the Earth than it has in nearly 60,000 years. Two dozen campers queue up near Skyline Arch to peer through a telescope as Duriscoe and Richman assist them.

“That’s an ice cap?” one woman blurts out. “Oh my God.”

Wrapped in darkness, perhaps emboldened by it, campers begin exchanging memories with strangers. They talk about the night sky in past tense, as if it were a relic of childhood. One man recalls watching the stars as a boy in a Montana pasture. An Atlanta man describes driving 75 miles out of the city every two weeks to see stars. A New Yorker recounts how a friend arrived home during the August electricity blackout to find her neighbors milling on the sidewalk, heads tilted toward the Milky Way.

We do the same, a knot of strangers on the sandstone, looking up.