Shannon, my sister, is taking an online college course in astronomy. Considering that we live in the same house, I am consequently taking the course as well. The hum of a professor’s lecture accompanies me each morning as I make my green smoothie, a cardboard “Circle of Stars” appears routinely at the bedside and on tabletops, and on the night of the meteor shower about a month ago, I was the first one awake. (I might add that we were both disappointed at the lack of excitement between the supposed prime hours of 2 and 4am.)
Our newfound attention to the “celestial objects, space, and the physical universe” climaxed last week upon our visit to the Veen Observatory. Shannon was required to take part in an observation, so we, along with two other friends, decided to make the trek out to this previously unheard of location.
The James C. Veen Obervatory is located in the middle of… yup, you guessed it… NOWHERE. Driving eastward we went from highway to country road to forest lane to feeling like we were lost inside Jurassic Park in thirty minutes flat. If Shannon hadn’t noticed a postage stamp-size sign with Veen Observatory across the back (yes, the back, not the front) I don’t believe I would be here to tell about it.
“Are you sure the car is going to fit in there?” Shannon asked, looking doubtfully at an opening in the trees hardly wide enough for Alice’s white rabbit.
Somehow we made it in and parked in a small clearing. A path loomed before us, stretching up a hill and winding into trees, its final destination unknown. We huffed up the path while small lanterns at our feet illuminated our way. Once we reached the top, a gray-bearded man wearing a black T-shirt with an emblem of Saturn on the front asked,
“Are you here to see some stars?”
As if we would have come to this place for any other imaginable reason?
“Yes,” we said. “Yes we are!”
The man escorted us to a small building where I noticed several other old men with black Saturn T-shirts, whom I call “the experts.” Inside the building, the four of us, as well as a handful of other observers, watched a short film on the history of the Veen Observatory and the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association (who knew?).
Then it was time to see the stars. We walked out of the building and stared up at the sky. I shook my head, it was still too light, nothing to see.
(Enter Antonio, a man whom no one knows his real name, but who was affectionately given the aforementioned title by Shannon and will be referred to as such for the remainder of this narrative. While Antonio was void of any black Saturn tee, he was obviously one of “the experts,” just a younger, more stylish – and might I add more attractive? – version.)
Antonio pointed to the sky.
“Look, there’s Saturn!” he said, “And over there, see that light… that’s Mars.”
There was a pause as the crowd squinted into the sky, and soon everyone began to ooh-and-aah over the faint lights. Everyone, that is, except me. I, on the other hand, began to panic. Why couldn’t I see them? Had I come all this way for nothing? Was I blind to the planetary brilliance right before my eyes?
“I can’t see them!” I said, “Why can’t I see them?”
“It’s okay, they’re very hard to see,” Shannon said.
“But I want to see them! Please, will you point them out again?” I asked Antonio.
“Sure,” he said. “Look there,” he pointed to the left, “That light is Saturn. And,” he pointed to the right, “that one is Mars. See it?”
I saw nothing. The sky appeared as gray and lifeless as the old man’s beard with the Saturn T-shirt. But after a few minutes, as I stood staring desperately up, the sky grew darker and Saturn finally called to me, a miniscule twinkle, a glow I’m sure I would have previously mistaken as just another star.
“There it is! It’s Saturn! I see it.”
Then I saw Mars, too, and as the sky continued to darken, the stars came out, piercing the sapphire sky. All of us, experts and observers alike, gazed in wonder at this celestial world to which the door is only opened by the closing of another.
The next two hours flew by as we journeyed through space. We viewed Saturn (it really does look exactly like the image on the experts’ shirts), Mars (which shows a faint red color on close inspection), and a nebula (a cluster of stars looking something like a Cheerio) through various telescopes. We were even given a personal tour of the constellations by Antonio, who spent several minutes pointing out Hercules, Leo, and the like with the most heavy-duty laser I have ever seen.
Too soon it was time to leave this place that, even if for only a few hours time, seemed to have become a home. The Veen Observatory had been our wardrobe, a fairy-land, the true second star to the right for the evening, and it was sad to say goodbye.
Once in the privacy of our bedroom, Shannon and I couldn’t stop talking about our astronomical adventure.
“That was awesome!” we both said more than once. “We have to go back.”
Shannon also brought up the topic previously left unsaid.
“Hey, you should’ve asked Antonio for his number,” she grinned, and when my face turned red, she continued, “It’s okay, I had a crush on him, too.”
So the moral of the story? If you live in the Grand Rapids area and have not been to the Veen Observatory, please, take a trip!! It is truly amazing to look at the beauty of the stars and planets, a testament to our marvelous Creator. You can read more about the Observatory and the GRAAA here, as well as find the Public Night Schedule through October 2014: http://www.graaa.org/. The cost is only $3 for adults, $2 for 17 and under, and free for children under 5. It is well worth it! And if you happen to see Antonio, maybe you could at least find out his real name.