Seeing the stars in Big Bend National Park has been on my bucket list since I first cracked the stiff spine of a science textbook and realized humans could visit the stars. Around the same time, I also realized that training to become a fighter pilot and, subsequently, an astronaut….yeah, that probably wasn’t my future. So I turned my passion for space travel into a passion for astronomy (I’m going somewhere with this, promise).
American spends about three billion dollars a year on “bad” lighting—the type illuminating our grocery stores, city streets, and back porches. The type that expands upward and outward, brightening up a once dark night sky. The cheaper this lighting gets, the more of it people use—and that’s how we’ve arrived at a pretty damning side effect of this light pollution: We can’t see the stars anymore.
That’s where the IDA (International Dark Sky Association) comes in. They’re working to preserve our disappearing night sky-scape by studying and helping reform the ways we light up our cities.
Sadly, 99-percent of the population in the continental U.S. still lives in places considered polluted by light, meaning most of us can’t even see the massive spiral galaxy we call home: the Milky Way.
Allow me to space-nerd out on you for a moment: More than 100,000 light years in diameter with more than 100 billion stars and at least as many planets, the Milky Way is arguably the most impressive feature of the night sky we can see with the naked eye. But actually seeing it in all of it’s cosmic glory?
Well, that requires a little more effort than simply craning your neck.
You need a clear night sky with no fog or humidity. But most important, you need to be in a location that’s completely void of light pollution—no small task. The IDA has a list of these coordinates (International Dark Sky Places), officially the “darkest and most pristine skies in the world.” Big Bend is one of them, boasting the lowest levels of light pollution in the lower 48 states.
We didn’t plan to drive nine hours from Houston, Texas—where my older brother had invited us to spend Thanksgiving—we just went, because Big Bend National Park is just outside of nowhere, and that’s exactly where I needed to be. At the corner of Muddy Feet and Too Many Sour Gummy Worms.
And, I wanted to write this blog post as a guide for your own paddle trip, but I failed spectacularly at both planning and executing my own journey to a place I’d dreamed about for years. Seeing as I forgot to book a kayak shuttle ahead of my time, my three-day float trip morphed into one that unfolded over six miles…upstream. I guided my kayak into the Santa Elena Canyon, suddenly caught between two towering kingdoms of colorless quiet so silent that even my thoughts seemed to echo.
It was far from the perfect trip I’d pictured all these years, but it turned out to be the trip I needed.
After our arms were sore and our once-white kayaks perfectly muddied and scored from the gritty river banks—one of them Mexico, one of them home—we were gifted that clear night sky.
We carried sleeping bags through the light of our fading headlamps until we found the right little patch of desert. Then we tipped our heads back, howled at the pack of coyotes running nearby, and let our eyes drink in the universe like we’d never seen it before.
And it swallowed me whole.
The desert below me, the mud caked on my soles, the bones in my body— all made from the dust of that universe stretched out before me. That universe, where in the absence of sound there is only beauty and order and mystery. That universe, so unexplored. So quiet.
And in that moment, I cried like I was watching a pet adoption commercial. Maybe it was just the boxed wine I’d been drinking like the classy lady I am. Or, maybe, it was just finding some peace and quiet in a dream that was realized in the most imperfect kind of way.
Thank you to Reebok for partnering with Dirtbag Darling and donating some of the gear in this story.