Cosmic Debris: Watching the Meteor Shower Next to the Gunks

Written by Andrey Slivka on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


"Uhhhhhhh…I
can’t feel my feet. I can’t feel my feet."
Dopey laughter drifts out from the darkness in response. And then comes the
harsh response: "That’s not because of the weed." Pause.
"You idiot." And laughter.


A million
freezing light-years away…


Actually
it’s just New Paltz, upstate in Ulster County, at 3:45 in the morning,
one of those cold, lucid nights that you get in autumn, when the sky’s
clear, and you stand out there in the rural emptiness and crane your neck up
and are shocked to find that you–yes, you yourself–are the point around
which the whole starry universe revolves. It’s two Sunday mornings ago,
and we’ve all assembled–tourists from the city like us, plus all the
creatures of granola New Paltz, such as the lanky, stoical middle-aged bearded
telemarkers, and the slackjawed Zen rock-climbers, and the fungal elfin hippies
from the local SUNY campus, and the big guffawing earthy backpacker chicks–to
watch, in fact, the great meteor shower.


New Paltz
sits about 10 miles west of the Hudson River in a valley that dead-ends right
into the Shawangunk Mountains, the famous granite cliffs of which attract hordes
of patient, admirable human beings who climb them. The road up out of the valley
switches back along the cliffs before heaving itself through a cleft and shooting
out along the plateau, Catskill-bound. Almost at the top of the road, there’s
a parking turnout, from which you can look back eastward at what’s in the
daytime a charming fertile valley, but that’s now a purple void, scattered
with lights. Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, those grand slums, cast their lavender
auras up into the distant sky, the luscious luminous exhalations of once-thriving
river cities that now hover on the edge of death.


And, when
you look up, you see the meteor shower’s many, many shooting stars. By
4:15 a.m. the shower’s thick. The sky–especially the eastern sky–is
freaking out. At first we watch the interstellar festivities in pious silence.
Cars are jammed at all angles into the turnoff, and parked along the shoulder
of the road. Hundreds of people, here in the middle of the night, mill around
between the ticking engines, swaddled in fleece, their heads craned at the southeastern
horizon, bumping gently into each other. Whip whip whip whip whip: there’s
a flurry of shooting stars, arcing across the sky. Each pulls behind it a trail
of a different thickness and intensity, and of a slightly different color, and
each burns out at a different point. You imagine you can almost hear the stars
hissing and popping and crackling as they whip and ping through the atmosphere;
but you really can’t; all you can hear is the music of 150 locals moaning
whoooaaaa in reverent unison. Forty meteors per minute, we’re told,
so that everywhere you look in the sky there’s some action. Whoooosh, lines
intersect each other: some stars arc down in slow motion, leaving thick, lingering
blue-red smudges against the sky, like descending flares. I’m reminded
of the Indian legend about how god discards the sliver of the old moon by grinding
it into shards, which he casts across the sky.


I’m
reminded also of the fact that there’s a one-in-5000 chance that some piece
of interstellar debris will hit the Earth this century and wipe out every last
bit of life, even down to the lichens and the roaches. The mountain looms, the
valley twinkles, the sky hisses and streaks and screams and glows. The atmosphere
here is sufficiently serious that when a passing car swings its headlights across
our group, people groan. And taking a flash photograph means getting snarled
at by blinking hippies.


But how
long can this churchgoing atmosphere last? By 4:30 a.m. we’re all freezing.
The smell of pot drifts over. ("I can’t feel my feet. I can’t
feel my feet
.") Everybody’s face is numb. Everybody’s neck
hurts from staring upward at this heavenly conflagration, at this hurlyburly
of Eternity, at these rockets that roar at blasphemous speeds across the voids.
And then:


"Chrissy!
Chriiiiiiiisssyyyyyyy! Where are you! Where are you, Chrissy! I need a cigarette!
I need a cigarette!"


The energy
shifts. People loosen up and start laughing. People wander around, grinning
and wiped out in the dark. Way off, on the eastern horizon, you can see what
might be a suspicion of dawn: a band of aquamarine light that vanishes as soon
as you look at it, so that you’re not sure you’ve seen it at all.
Anyway, dawn’s coming, and with it, the usual grateful explosion of noise.
On the seashore, the hours before dawn mean that the seabirds begin to call;
in New York City, the old men come and rifle through your trash looking for
cans; in New Paltz, on the morning of the meteor shower–of this explosion
of galactic energy–the approach of dawn seems to be marked by heightened
exuberance amongst hippies and locals.


Kids groan
to each other, shining penlights–and who’s even looking at the sky
anymore? We’re like an army encamped for the night in this enchanted mountain
darkness. If you miked the whole scene, what would you get? Bonghit gurglings,
oaths at the cold, people stepping on each other, bits of conversation and bellowings:


"Fucking
cold."


"Yeah,
well…"


"But
you didn’t tell me we were gonna be going to a meteor shower. I thought
I was gonna be in a warm bar, drinking beer."


"Chrissy!"
And laughter. And more hippie-chick earthy bellowing: "Chrissy!"


"You
sure are one loud woman!"


Bellowing,
laughing: "Oh yeh I’m loud all right! Oh I’m the loudest girl
here, all right. Oh yeh, I’m sure loud! I’m the loudest woman here!
CHRISSY! I need a cigarette!"


Engines
are starting all around, kids are walking back to the warmth of their cars,
heading home. The sky’s becoming an afterthought. Everything’s fraying
at its edges. Cackling faces shine behind lighters. A blinking gopher of a hippie
sticks his head out of the mushroom tent he’s pitched in the margin on
the other side of the road barrier.


"CHRISSY!"


I love these
upstate hippie college towns. If I could do it all over again, I’d go to
SUNY New Paltz, and be a predawn hippie, stumbling about, merrily stoned out
of my mind under the sky. Toward the end, someone opens his car doors and blasts
the radio: Aerosmith keens "Dream On." It’s like, Laser Aerosmith,
out here in the rustic north. But in the past, a meteor shower would have been
considered a portent. And the savages would have huddled in their log shelters
as hundreds of suns fell from the sky.


Scores of
kids and beer-stained locals and hippies and climbers, loping happily up the
mountain road, just before dawn.


..