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Exploring the Galaxy

by Jason Angus

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If you want to be amazed, drive four hours to the middle of nowhere (if your phone has any service, keep going) wait until the moon sets, and then finally look up.

It was a Sunday.  We finished watching the 2018 FIFA World Cup and then hit the road. Between the PA Turnpike and Route 80, we drove for 3 hours, accelerating past slow drivers and looking out for State Troopers.  Around 5 p.m. we turned onto a highway that reminded us every few miles, "No Pavement Markers."  Our cell phones lost service nearly thirty miles in.  The road disappeared from Apple Maps GPS.  We continued along this illusive stretch of highway, climbing up hills and curving around tight turns, deeper into the woods.

"Look at all the butterflies," Angie shouted (We drive a noisy soft-top Jeep Wrangler, so we actually do have to yell sometimes). Hundreds of yellow, socializing butterflies floated among the purple and orange wild flowers all along the road for the rest of the drive.  I felt anxious because GPS was useless and rain clouds loomed above, and we believed that campers we not allowed to set up after dark.  We continued to push up the hills, maneuver the turns, watch the butterfly's, and the blank GPS screen.

When we arrived at the camp we immediately set up our 10x12' shelter tarp, our tent and fly. We just nailed in our final ground stake when distant lightning flickered through the dark summer clouds. The sky cracked and rumbled, then it poured rain for less than a half hour. Then the sky miraculously cleared up and the the sun soon began to set.

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Angie made veggies and hummus wraps for dinner. They were scrumptious. We built a fire and set out the most essential camping items known to man: graham crackers, chocolate squares, and marshmallows.   A cosmic collision of gluttonous ecstasy transpired.  Mallows were roasted. The sun set. Time passed. 

"Oh my god babe," Angie said, munching on her last s'more. "Look up."  The stars were waking up, one by one, twinkling right above our heads.

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"Wow, that's unreal..." I said back.  "I'm getting my camera." 

I took some quick test shots right in our campsite. Even with the light of the campfire interfering with the light of the stars, the camera still found more stars than I'd seen under any night sky. 

"Check this out babe!" I said, urging Angie to look at the camera display. The fire-lit trees stood out against a starry backdrop. 

"Cool," she said, showing some excitement. 

We left our site just before midnight to walk to the park's night-sky observation field. The State Park requires that all light sources be covered with a red filter as to not disturb the night-sky with light pollution. I set my headlamp to the red-light mode. Angie had her flashlight covered with red cellophane. We followed a dimly red-light lit path to a large open field. We heard the voices of nearby people talking and laughing from scattered locations but we could see no one. We placed a blanket down on the ground a few feet away from the path. We laid down, flat on our backs, and stared up. 

"I can't believe it." I said. 

"There's so many," Angie said, slightly laughing with astonishment. "It's beautiful." 

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We took in the view and appreciated how lucky it is to be alive, to be together, and to witness the magnitude of our galactic neighborhood for the first time. A large swathe of star-clouds hovered directly above us. Later we learned that we were looking at the center of our own Milky Way Galaxy.

"Happy Birthday," Angie said to me. 

It was now just after midnight and I was officially 36 years old, happy, and looking into the eyes of my soul mate.  

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"I think that's Mars," Angie said. "It's that bright orange one. And there is the big dipper! I wonder what that one is there?" She pointed to another really bright star. She opened an app on her phone. "That's Vega," she said. 

I tinkered with my camera a bit by setting up the tripod and playing with the ISO and shutter speed. 

"I'm closing my eyes for a whole minute so they see more when I open them," Angie said. She was pleased with her discovery and attempted to close her eyes even longer in order to yield an increase of her stellar perceptions. So, one minute turned into two minutes. And alas, two minutes turned into two hours. 

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I had my settings just right for a while and was working with a variety of compositions. I really liked seeing the star clouds right above the tree line. It offers some context and allows for the viewer to compare the size of the milky starred clouds to the tall silhouetted pines. 

Angie woke up shivering around 3 a.m.  “Babe, I’m so cold,” she said, half asleep. 

“Okay. Last few shots,” I said.

When I finished up, we grabbed our blanket and gear, and walked back down the gravel road to our outdoor dwelling.

Back at camp, I opened the passenger car door and dropped in my camera bag. That was the moment that our dream-like vacation dissolved into reality. Some object zipped across my peripheral and my head followed. I looked into the back of the Jeep, but saw nothing. I stowed away my camera bag and tripod. Again. Zip!

"Did I just see something?" I waited. I looked. I shrugged my shoulders, and then shut the door.  After a bit more tidying up, I went back to lock something else in the car. My red light shone through the passenger window and this time... zip zip...  I saw something.

"Hey babe! We've got a... (bird? No. A chipmunk?  No, that's not it...)  Babe we've got a... (there it was, clearer now, sitting on our stack of firewood in the back of the Jeep) ...a mouse."

It dashed away and out of view.

"Shit," we both said in unison. 

Our energy was too low to consider the implications of having a mouse scavenging through our car, so we bundled ourselves up inside our tent and fell fast asleep.

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Over a breakfast of oatmeal with peanut butter and honey, and a cup of tea, we learned that deer mice could leave their little disease infected poops all over the inside of our car. They could also build a nest inside it's air ducts, raise a family in it by morning, and possibly expose us to the plague. “The End” was nigh.

To distract our minds from impending doom, we explored the campground to see which campsites we would want to stay at next time. A quick survey revealed that we somehow got lucky and were already the tenants of the best site on the grounds. Ours was right along the woods and more secluded than any other. Our short expedition then lead us across the street to the RV camping area where we found a hiking trail. We followed it faithfully and realized it was actually a short two-mile loop bringing us back to where we began. 

We found a cool hiking stick while on the trail, so I carved into it with a knife back at camp while Angie played a selection of top 100 songs for me on our acoustic guitar. Then we set up the hammock and relaxed for a while. 

In the afternoon Angie was getting ready to wash off the layers of bug repellent she had on since the previous day when suddenly I heard her scream “Aaaaaah!” from the tent. It must have been a bug.

“Inside or outside?” I asked. 

“Inside,” she replied with a shaky voice.

When we married a few years ago, I took an oath to protect Angie from any and all bugs, so I jumped up and went to her rescue.

“Where is it?” I asked.

“It’s a spider," she said. "Right there on your jacket. There! You can see its legs."

I found a mason jar and unscrewed the lid. I unzipped the tent and climbed inside.  The spider crawled across our clothes bag and onto the floor.  I reached forward with the glass jar and made a clean capture of the trespassing arachnid. We put our eyes up to the jar and stared at it from our side of the glass. It was a Brown Recluse. I walked several yards away and released it along the woods. It was an unnerving experience because one's tent is the single place you never want any critters to get into, obviously because you sleep there. Our sleeping space had been invaded. It had been with us throughout the night. 

“He must have come in on our blanket and towels we laid under the stars last night,” Angie said. It was the most logical reason, and a stark lesson to learn. Bugs can only be in your tent because A: The zipper was left open too long or B: The bug pulled the old "Trojan Horse" trick and gained entry by clothing or other article. It was nice to know that a bug-free tent wasn't the result of luck, but instead was something entirely within our control. After a quick “poor man’s shower” we took a long afternoon nap. Then the tent got too hot so Angie snuck out and spent the last of her nap time swaying on the hammock. 

We got our fire going around dusk and hung around camp for the rest of the night. Storm clouds were closing in so we anticipated a bit of rain. It wasn’t until dark when it started to pour down. We moved our chairs and folding table underneath the tarp where we stayed completely dry. The fire still burned even through the heavy rains. 

Eventually the rain stopped, but lingering droplets continued to fall from leaf to leaf in the trees overhead. The sky occasionally lit up like a strobe as the storm moved away.

It rained throughout the night while we slept.

Around four thirty in the morning, rain still beating on the tarp, Angie awoke to a strange noise. It sounded like someone wearing boots was walking right outside our tent. The gravel crunched and crunched again. And then again, and again. When Angie thought it was getting even closer she shook my arm. Although I was still asleep, even I heard the sound of footsteps coming right toward us. My body lunged awake from a deep sleep and automatically belched a slurred, “aaaHeyyyy! OoWhoooo’s oout there!!?” The sound stopped. We waited to see if the steps would move away but we heard nothing else. With little consideration, except that I was about to step out of my tent to face whatever stranger may await, I sprang to my feet, unzipped the tent, and bursted out to see who was there. I stood in my boxers and bare feet, sleepy-eyed and looking around. It was starting to get light out. I saw nothing. I walked the perimeter of our tent and car. Still nothing. We were alone. I climbed back inside and fell back asleep for another two hours.

It was our last full day at camp and our last chance to finally remove our rodent friend.

We decided we would have to get a mouse trap somewhere and have it ready by nightfall.  “Somewhere” was an hour drive to Lowe’s. On the way we stopped by the “Pine Creek Gorge,” also called the "Pennsylvania Grand Canyon." We were actually pretty disappointed. Although we have never been to the actual Grand Canyon, this was not even close. It was pretty to look at, but it was a grand let down to what we had imagined. 

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We made it back to camp with a mouse trap by early evening. We built another campfire and had a visit from a Park Ranger. She told us there wouldn’t be an official park program that night, but she was going to set up a telescope to allow people to look at some of the planets of our solar system. Across the way, the other Ranger asked a group of campers to move their car to the designated parking area at the road. When the Rangers left, the guy moved his car as he was asked. I thought about being neighborly so I called over.

“They made you move your car?” I asked.

“Apparently they pick and a choose who they want to follow the rules,” he said. "That camper over there and you guys are supposed to park here too but you weren’t asked." (Actually our designated parking spaces were right on our site, but their site was “walk-in accessible”). 

“That’s sucks man,” I said.

“Yea, well when it’s time to pack up you can bet I’ll drive my car back up to our tent,” he said.

“Totally,” I said.

We made small talk and had learned it was their first time camping. His name was Harrison and his lady friend was Sam. They were from Willow Grove, just a few minutes from where we live.

“I used to go to elementary school in Willow Grove,” I said. 

“We heard this was a great place to go camping and stargazing so I rented a nice lens for my camera," Harrison said. "Maybe later we can share ghost stories around a fire and you can serenade us with your guitar."

“Yeah, maybe,” I said.

Just before dark, Angie and I walked up to the observation field and set up our folding chairs. We weren't laying blankets on the ground this time for fear of any more “Trojan Spider” incidents. We overheard another couple sitting near by. They were from the Doylestown area, again, very close to where we live.  They were on a road trip that allowed them to drive from the west end of Pennsylvania and back home.

“Okay, I’ve got the telescope set to Venus,” the Park Ranger said. She was working all by herself.  It was a slow Tuesday and she stayed on the premises for a handful of campers and visitors to look at a couple planets in our solar system. We all stood in a small line where one by one, each of us saw a brightly glowing, hazy dot. 

"Okay, okay. Pretty cool," I thought. But I couldn't see any details at all. I also don't know anything about Venus to be appreciative. Then we saw Jupiter and four of her possibly 79 moons. 

The Ranger spent a good half hour aiming her green laser pointer at various points of interest, showing us a few shortcuts on how to navigate from one constellation to the next. Then we talked about our astrological birth signs and how they relate to the position of the earth at a given time of the year. We were given a crash course from a park ranger who was very prolific in astronomy. 

"Okay, give me a few minutes while I find Saturn in the telescope," she said.

Angie and I were talking about how neat this all was when suddenly another camper quite randomly popped up inches away from Angie. She was a woman, possibly in her early twenties, maybe younger. 

"Hi," she said. "Are you guys having a good time?"

Angie, surprised at how quickly the woman appeared, jumped a bit closer to me. It was an awkward greeting. We both smiled and nodded and agreed it was pretty great getting to see the stars like this. 

"Yeah this is really something," I said, trying to be friendly while we assessed the situation.

"I've never seen stars before," she said. At first I hadn't processed what she had just said. But then...

"Wait! You've NEVER seen the stars before?" I asked.

"Well, yea. I have seen the stars before, just not like this," she said. I listened to the pacing of her words and watched her expressions. Then I realized that she might have some sort of disability so I became more sympathetic.

"Yea, isn't this amazing?" I said. "There are so many."

"Okay. Bye," she said. It was a quick interaction, but one with a purpose. She went over to the park Ranger who was still focusing the telescope on to Saturn. 

"Hi," the woman said to the Ranger. "Can I look in the telescope?" 

"Sure. I'm almost done setting it up, so just a second," the Ranger said. A moment passed.

"Can I ask you a personal question," the woman asked. 

"Sure," said the Ranger.

"Well it's kinda private. Will you come over here with me?"

"Sure. Just give me one more second. Okay. Let go over there."

The Ranger told us that we could look at Saturn while she was away for a moment.

"...And when I get back we should have enough time for Mars," she said.  Then we looked into the eyepiece and saw a glowing orb encircled by a majestic ring. I was pretty amazed.

The woman and the Ranger walked to the other side of a storage shed, but their voices traveled to our curious ears. 

"So what can I help you with?" asked the Ranger. 

"I don't know, I just don't feel safe."

"Is something wrong?" 

"No, I just don't feel safe."

"Why don't you feel safe?" 

"I don't know."

"Okay, are you here alone?"

"No. My parents are at the camp. But I'm scared to go back."

"Why are you scared to go back?"

"I don't know. I just don't want to." 

"Okay well what will make you feel safe? Do you want a Ranger to go down there with you?"

"No."

"Do you want talk with another Ranger? Will that make you feel safe?" 

"Okay."

The lone Ranger (no pun intended) radioed to her partner who was likely patrolling another park or napping in his vehicle.

"I have a young lady here who is not well," she said. "She is okay physically, but... she's not feeling well. Can you call my cell?"

The other Ranger called her cell and began asking the girl the same questions which brought the same answers. He informed them he would be headed to their location. Meanwhile, the girl's father arrived and began talking to the Ranger.

"She was in psychiatric care for several weeks and is off her meds," the father said. "We had this trip planned so we didn't think we had to cancel it. She's having an episode." 

“Okay, do you think you can take her back to camp?”

“No! I don’t want to get in the car!” She was starting to get upset.  Then the woman's mom walked up too.

“I think we should drive to Pittsburg tonight, to the hospital there,” the mom explained. 

“Should I call for an ambulance then,” asked the Ranger.

“I don’t think so,” said the mom. 

The Ranger excused herself and returned to the rest of the stargazers.

“Okay, I’m going to have to put the telescope away," she said. She began to disassemble the parts when someone said, "Can we quickly look at Mars?"

"No, there is an emergency. Sorry." 

So we thanked her for showing us the planets and then found our folding chairs we brought with us. It was getting cold and we wanted to go burn the rest of our firewood. We planned to return to the observation field after midnight to use Angie’s camera to photograph the galaxy.  

We made it back to camp. Already I could hear the diesel engine coming from up the hill.

"The ambulance is here," I said.

We felt bad for the woman. She really was frightened and she couldn't explain why. We wished that she was able to find some peace. After all, there were millions of stars right over our heads. 

Our neighbors came back to their site not long after us. "Oh my god!" Harrison shouted. "They're eating our food." The first time campers must have left some of their dinner on the picnic table. "Ahhh, gross!" Sam said. "It's a skunk," Harrison said. "I see it! It's running away," Sam said.  Angie and I just kinda shook our heads and laughed about it. 

We had our fire and made some s'mores. Now, I was ready to catch the mouse.

The trap was a “live catch” box approximately 1x3”.  It was small enough for one mouse, and it had a door that snapped behind when the weight of the mouse moved closer to the bait. It was loaded with delicious chunky peanut butter to entice his squeaky nose. I went to join Angie at the fire. We had our biggest logs on there. It was going to be a long night. Maybe a half hour passed. My sensitive ears heard a subtle “click.” 

“Hey! Did you hear that?!” I shouted in a whisper. “The trap. It was triggered.” 

I opened the car door and inspected the trap. The trap door was sealed shut but there was no mouse inside. And guess what? The peanut butter was gone. So I added more bait and reset the trap. I watched. I waited. The Jeep door was wide open this time and I saw the mouse come into view. In quick movements, it ran across the floor board and under the passenger seat. Then onto the door frame and then closer to the trap. Then he went for it. His nose curved around and inside the trap door, and then his little body and tail followed. The trap tipped to the peanut butter end and the door swung shut behind him. Before I could say, “got him,” he somehow backed his way right out. The door wasn’t locked in place. I tried again. Waited. Watched. He was inside again. The trap tipped to the bait end. “Click!” He was in, tight. “He's trapped,” I said. “He’s in there!” 

I picked up the trap and he was squirming inside, trying to use his little claws and teeth to etch a new way out. I felt like I had the Tasmanian devil in a tiny cardboard box. I walked away from our campsite, down the road and sent him off in the opposite direction of our camp.

“He’s gone. But could there be more,” I wondered. I set a new trap just in case. I closed the tailgate of the Jeep only to see the eyes and nose and ears of a mouse looking at me from a space between the bumper and the car.

“Seriously?!”

I didn’t know how to make sense of it. Was it the same mouse, or was it another one. Maybe I hadn’t released it far enough. I went back to the trap and watched again. Seconds later I saw TWO mice, darting head to tail in tight formation from the passenger seat to the floor board. 

“Oh my god! Christ!” I screamed, smacking my hands to the top of my head. “Angie, there’s two of them!”

My eyes grew wide. I waited. I watched. They came out of the shadows and went for the trap. It snapped shut before either could get in. They ravenously attacked the hard plastic box, chewing and scratching, and searching for weak points to get to the prize inside the little treasure chest we laid out just for them. I was dumbfounded.

I reasoned that the trap had to get far away from our car because the peanut butter had not only attracted the first mouse, but he had also returned with an even bigger accomplice. That was enough. I plunged my hand into the danger zone and stole back the trap. I wiped off the bait and walked the trap to the road and left it there until it was time to leave the next day.

“What the hell are we going to do?" I thought. "We can’t bring them back home with us. What if they build a nest in our house?”

Images flashed through my mind as I saw a small problem leading to major destruction. I'm sure Angie saw the same thing. The defeat weighed on our minds. We stared into the remains of a dying fire. Underneath the crackle of the burning coals, we could hear persistent little claws scratching at the inside fabric of our Jeep's soft top. We had grown tired of the unfamiliar elements we had so far experienced on our trip. 

"Let's put out the fire and go to bed," I said. "We'll talk about it in the morning." But neither of us moved. We were too tired. 

"Did you heard that?" I whispered to Angie.

"No," she said. 

I pointed my head lamp a few feet away to reveal a long black figure lurching side to side. It was a skunk. It looked at us.

"I want to go into the tent now," Angie said. 

"I know, I know, just... don't move," I said. "I want to make sure it's going away."

"No!" she said. "I want to go in the tent, right now."  So we left the skunk and the hot coals to themselves and fled to our tent.

It was now somehow 2:30 a.m.

From a distant campsite, the sound of a child crying delayed our sleep. And then just a few more minutes later we heard more footsteps, seemingly moving through our camp. I sat up and looked out the mesh window of our tent to see a different neighbor wearing a headlamp and walking toward our direction, but clearly in their own camp. They had just returned from the observation field with their telescope. Feeling vulnerable, I stayed awake a little longer until I could no longer fight the weight of my heavy eyelids. 

Spiders. Mice. Strange footsteps before dawn. Mental patients. Skunks.

It was all so very worth it. I got to hang out with my best friend in the middle of nowhere, under the stars. 

We drove home the next day, all along expecting two mice to appear at our feet and climb our legs, but they never did. The long stretch of road that had no pavement markings now had a fresh coat of lines that spanned and curved and climbed out of the woods for nearly an hour. After I drove for two hours, Angie took the wheel the rest of the way home. We pulled into an empty driveway. We unloaded everything. We disinfected EVERYTHING. That night, back in civilization, we set the trap up again. I went out several times so inspect it. If we trap them, I'm driving them far away. If they came back, my last option was to use a kill trap. I checked the trap in the morning.

It looks like the deer mice that we met love their home in the woods more than they love our Jeep. Thank you Universe. 

That morning we had our car detailed. That night we began planning our next trip.