Heaven and Earth converge at the Trona Pinnacles

The Sunday Escapist: Part 2 in a series of one-day adventures in the Mojave Desert

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Heaven and Earth converge at the Trona Pinnacles“For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” — Vincent Van Gogh


Writers and philosophers have been endeavoring for millennia to capture the majesty and mystery of our human connection to the stars. Still, we never seem to run out of things to say on the subject. Those of us fortunate enough to live in a valley capped by dark skies, which facilitate a constant reminder of our proximity to the heavens, have even more opportunity to contemplate this lofty subject.

A while back someone asked my favorite childhood memory. One that stood out from countless joyful experiences and traditions of my youth was the night my parents took us to see Halley’s Comet.

Motivated by the chance to witness this potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, our family planned an excursion that started with my falling asleep on the living room floor (surrounded by siblings and cousins), being nudged out of slumber in the middle of the night, slipping on my shoes and trundling out to drive to the nearest spot in the mountains that obscured the neighboring light pollution. It was 1986. I was eight years old. And at the time, I couldn’t fathom being around for the next appearance in 2061 and so felt responsible to absorb the experience to the fullest.

But thinking back, I realize it wasn’t the comet alone that secured the event in my memory. I have a vague recollection of seeing the bright, fuzzy (and underwhelming, if I’m honest) object through my dad’s binoculars. My more enduring impressions came from the sense of adventure surrounding the viewing and the opportunity to wander through the quiet wilderness, pondering a giant sky full of impossibly bright stars.

Perhaps the legacy of Halley’s Comet was also diminished for me by the demise of the Challenger. On its way to view the comet up close, the shuttle exploded, claiming the lives of seven astronauts in the process. A vague sense of resentment took root, as my immature mind adopted the comet as the antagonist in this tragedy.

But my fascination with the stars themselves remained.

Taking advantage of the relative flexibility summer affords our family, I got a wild hare this week to recreate this experience for my children. There’s no comet. No planetary conjunction. I didn’t even wait for what’s supposed to be a pretty spectacular showing of the Perseid meteor shower, which started last week and peaks next month.

What made this trip special (aside from the unheard-of waiver of our strictly enforced bedtime) was the novelty of viewing our stars from the otherworldly landscape at the Trona Pinnacles. Somehow, those rugged, alienesque rock formations help create the illusion of an off-planet experience — giving us a satisfying sense that we are just a little closer to the stars.

Having had dozens of stargazing parties with various combinations of family and friends over the years, I have to say the stars on this particular outing were merely a backdrop for all the other things we like to do together — hike, talk, take pictures, sing, eat and just enjoy the outdoors.

I also spent some time Googling famous quotes about the stars under the guise of “research” for this piece. But really I was trying to interpret my own fixation with the stars. Why, exactly, do I never tire of looking at, thinking about or just sitting under the stars?

Perspective is part of it. I know of nothing that can check our misguided sense of self importance as quickly as gazing up and realizing how insignificant we are in the face of the cosmos. Conversely, it could be the realization of good fortune in being allowed to exist in such an incomprehensibly complex and beautiful universe.

Or maybe it’s the reminder that, in a single framework, we have the potential to find answers to both our scientific and spiritual understanding of life.

Ultimately, we can never tire of looking at the stars, or striving to capture how much they mean to us because the infinite cannot be fully absorbed in a human time span, let alone a single viewing. Our understanding of them, of ourselves and of our place in this world (and beyond) can be enriched only through a lifetime of exposure.

Pictured: The unique rock formations at the Trona Pinnacles lend an exotic frame to our brilliant desert sky. — Photo by Timothy Neipp

Story First Published: 2018-07-20