Telescope Truths

"That was a shitload of stars."

"And we only saw a few thousand."

"I just can't help but feel like they're watching over us or something."

"Good lord give it a rest they're just stars."

"Nah I'm serious. Hey did you guys have a favorite constellation?"

“My favorite was Cygnus. What was it, the swan or something like that?”

“I don’t remember that one.”

“Yeah, well it really didn’t look much like a swan. Hell, you can make any patch of stars look like a swan as long as you sound like you know what you’re talking about.”

“A nuanced delivery. That’s what it takes. Hand motions and a blind conviction. Then you've got yourself a constellation.”

“I liked Maui’s Fishhook.”

“Oh yeah, that was really cool. A demigod pulls an island up by a fishhook. Fantastic imagery.”

“I think Saturn takes the cake. Being able to see the rings clearly … that was a treat.”

"What about Jupiter? Could ya see the red spot?"

"No I couldn't see the spot.

"It was right there how did you not see the spot?"

"I just didn't see the damn spot, alright!"

***

Mauna Kea's snow-less peak pokes through a layer of nebulous fluff like a Ticonderoga #2 jammed through printer paper . It is the tallest mountain in the world, base to summit. 33,000 feet tall in fact. While driving, my brother explores a virtual history book of lava flows. “Here comes the 1859 flow on our right, and then further up is the 1949 flow,” he explains. Native silver sword ferns and Mamane trees escort the roadway up to the summit, upon which an array of internationally owned top tier telescopes stand perched. Some of them look like R2-D2.

Rental car insurance doesn’t cover a drive to this altitude, because drivers can’t handle their shit. We took a four-wheel drive tour bus. Our driver, Greg, was more of an encyclopedia than a human. He told us that after a master’s degree in geology on the mainland he found the siren call of the Islands too much to resist. So now he drives a bus full of  Caucasian tourists up a volcano four days a week, stuffing their brains with the rich natural history of the archipelago while they dream of their Mai-Tai by the pool from hours before.

At the top the sun keeps good company. With nothing to see but clouds there is a sense of understanding between the sun and I. “Now you see,” it might say, “this is where I get my peace and quiet from the insanity of your people.” But not entirely. Scores of wheezing humans buzz around the mars-like summit with selfie sticks, unable to catch their breaths at altitude. It's a wonder the Hawaiians used to walk to the summit weekly.

When the sun leaves the stars arrive. One by one they appear, like timid cats after a dinner party. After a while the sky is lit up with celestial companions. Up here, there is no light pollution and eyes are glued to the night. The telescope exposes a cluster of thousands of stars where our naked eyes perceived just one. The milky way galaxy froths across the horizon. New constellations flicker in every corner of the sky. There is no saving my neck from the pain it will endure tomorrow; I have been staring straight up without stopping for 20 minutes.

I was slightly unnerved when the visceral reaction to such a natural masterpiece arrived in my gut. The stars, in their sublimity, seemed to realize their own grace.

What struck me the most was the idea that I shared that exact same experience with so many other people from myriad cultures, all of whom passed on their own perceptions, stories and significance of the shapes in the stars to their own people. Standing on the top of the White Mountain (Mauna Kea translated) allowed me to imagine the ancient Hawaiians as they studied with deliberate focus the patterns written across the black. What a sense of connection.

Riding the tour bus down the slopes of Mauna Kea I listened for a while as our guide shared his contempt for those dim-witted folks in Chrysler Town & Country vans who “ride their breaks” all the way down from 14 thousand feet. “Yeah, we get about two or so engine fires per week up here, and crazy crashes too.” he laughed. I noticed some uneasy swallows after this comment.

But momentarily I was drawn back to the stars. Avid outdoors-men and all else who are afforded the luxury of a star show revel in the vastness of the sky. Yet this experience seems to be vanishing, perhaps due in part to the growth of cities. Little Billy and Sally won’t see their first shooting star until they’re too old to know it’s not actually a sparkling five-point geometric shape. An impoverished inner-city dweller might not ever see more than a couple points of light fading into the smog their entire life. What am I saying here?

What’s lost in a daily (or nightly, I should say) connection with the stars is more than just a pretty view. It’s more, even, than just the exposure to the natural world. What’s lost has a lot more to do with people than I believe we all realize. The casual glance up at Polaris (the north star) on a weeknight after work makes you chuckle as you recount boy scouts training and that one idiot who couldn't shut up about his merit badge. An ocean of stars on the other hand, reminds you that there are people on the other side of the world just like you, who will in a matter of hours, find invaluable hope and inspiration in the exact same thing you’re looking at right now. An ocean of stars will grip you and force you to consider those who came before us and marveled at the stars, wondering what magic they might possess. An ocean of stars will make you wonder why we decided to group them into constellations in the first place. Virgo, Cassiopeia, Delphinus, Canis Major ...  were we just bored, or do things just make more sense to us when given neat labels? An ocean of stars will intrigue you as to how people all across the world consider stars in their own cultures. An ocean of stars will bring you to the age of exploration when arrogant and brave wanderers found new worlds using the night sky. An ocean of stars will make you dream bigger, shoot higher, now that the infinite is so clearly laid out before you. And an ocean of stars will keep you grounded, as you remember your place in the universe, and the people with whom you share it.

We know that stars are vast, almost incomprehensible gas explosions scattered throughout the universe. They are very hot. They are very bright. Many of the ones we see right now are even dead, the light from their past still visible to us. Some are being born as we speak. And even our own sun, much to the chagrin of those who would believe in its permanence, will bid adieu soon.

Perspective, albeit a cliche lesson to derive from stars, I think should take on a new component in celestial conversations. What if we try to see ourselves, our ancestors, our future generations, as they gaze up at those constant, turbulent, fiery guardians. What if we try to put ourselves in their shoes, if just to feel like we’re a part of a bigger family.

So go ahead. Go outside at night tonight. Or if it’s already nighttime bring the damn laptop outside and look up. I don’t care if you can only see one star or five thousand. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?

Yeah, well just remember:

They don’t give two shits about us.

Dispatches from Into the Wild: The Eastern Sierras

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outexploringbebacklata

By Michael J Whalen

Sitting outside the bakery with a mouthful of bagel and egg sandwich, I began to wonder if this was really happening. In the small town of Bishop, nestled underneath the spires of rock that make up the Eastern Sierras, the thirteen of us freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors sat two hundred ninety miles from campus on an adventure that would last no more than fifty two hours.

I took a sip of steaming coffee.

The last minute decision to go on this trip was made out of desperation. The quarter was starting to move fast, too fast, and my head had become cluttered. Like the others on the trip, I needed to slow down for a weekend and get some fresh air.

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rubylake

It was Saturday morning, and late Friday night we had pulled into Tioga Lake to set up camp with the cold biting us and the Milky Way distracting us. Up before sunrise, we jumped into our cars and set off for Mono Lake, three cars kicking up dust in the early morning like comet tails in the night. Wide-eyed watching the sun come up. Surprised that we were even awake and our hiking boots half-laced. Dreaming of bagel and egg sandwiches.

I had another sip of coffee.

Little did we know how much else the day had in store. We would drive into Lake Sabrina, Wil and Wright thinking instead the mountains were Torres del Paine or the Alps. Exploding reds and yellows of turning aspens whistled in the wind as Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” serenaded us. We would scarf down peanut butter-honey-Nutella tortillas in the dusty trailhead parking lot, licking the leftover deliciousness from our knuckles and stuffing bear canisters into our overnight packs.

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wright&nick

“Let’s go!” cried Max, the mad man behind this entire expedition. As we hit the trail, I rubbed excess sunscreen on my nose and lips. Granite slabs rising on either side of the trail, Lucy and Emily snapped frames with their beloved cameras while Bobby and Luke crafted stories one word at a time. In the last hanging rays of light we found ourselves halfway up Mt. Starr, our overnight packs far below, and the summit overhead. Trekking slow, the line of us inched up the slope of loose rock. We’d come hundreds of miles by car and a couple thousand vertical feet by foot, and now we were inching with all fours over the tops of kitchen table-sized boulders at the top. The ball of sun -- so generous to us all day -- splashed into the jagged horizon. Cold with the sunrise, peanut butter tortillas, cold with the sunset. We were wide-eyed at the summit, watching the sky turn orange to purple from a little rocky outcrop at 12,900 feet — pure stoke on every face.

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viewfrommtstarr

For the second night in a row we set up camp under the Milky Way’s arch, but that night we eat like kings and queens — freeze-dried Mountain House and Mary Jane’s. Telling stories to the sound of ravenous eating. Looking up at the stars. Surprised to be awake still.

Tomorrow we would see even more of these Sierras at Convict Lake and Yosemite Valley but for now it was time to tuck the bear canisters to bed and climb inside sleeping bags ourselves. It had started to feel like spring break in October, no one had told us we had class on Monday. Our group of thirteen strolled back to the cars, baked goods in hand, and I realized it was only Saturday.

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wilburch

10 Ways to get WILD on Spring Break!

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Spring break is arguably the best "break" of them all. For one sweet week of freedom, I can fly myself halfway to Bermuda, guzzle a goat-load of tropical cocktails and fantasize about feeding every last one of my essays to a llama in front of my professors' faces. And although I can always appreciate a good tropical vacation, sometimes the soul needs a bit more of an adventure to refuel after a long quarter of school. So, in the spirit of adventure, Santa Clara Into The Wild embarked on five epic journeys throughout the southwest United States last spring break, enjoying the company of fellow Santa Clara Broncos while taking in the majesty of all that our incredible wilderness backyard has to offer. Here are the Top Ten Ways to Get WILD on Spring Break:

Channel Islands National Park, CA

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1. Scale a mountain range in a windstormIt was like hiking across a cloud. To our right, the vast Pacific, to our left an ominous outline of the mainland, barely visible across the white-capped waves. The ascent to Montañon Ridge left us breathless and humbled, and it wasn't until we reached the top of the peak that we were able to clear our minds. After a 14 mile hike through valleys of wildflowers and sagebrush, we stood atop the world with 20 knot winds billowing in our faces. Is this what it's like to feel alive?

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2. Tan your upper thighsThough I can't condone too much tanning, it never hurts to introduce a few new hues to the pasty upper thigh region, and what better place to let them hang out than on top of the world! The crew established a well-deserved resting spot after hiking across Santa Cruz Is. for hours, lounging in the tall grass, enjoying views of the surrounding ocean and snacking on some choice berries and nuts. And the occasional island fox.

Canyonlands National Park, UT

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Julian-0449

3. Reenact the scene from Lord of the RingsDon't lie, pretending to be Legolas, Aragorn or any of the rest of the fellowship, coasting down the river in canoes and staring up at gargantuan rock pillars has always been on the "to-do" list. This ITW crew decided to make it a reality, paddling down Utah's Green River, only to find out that whoever named the river was colorblind. They destroyed the one ring nonetheless.

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Julian-0394

4. Get stuck in a sinkhole

For the most part, the Green River Crew remained (relatively) shipshape. Finding camp was a breeze and the cooking brought the group together. It wasn't until they realized that they had to remove all their excrement in a metal box that things began to fall apart. Void of any remaining dignity, the squad gave up hope of staying clean and let out their inner grime.

Ventana Wilderness, Big Sur, CA

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5. Find friends in a hot spring

Into The Wild fosters community, founded on the belief that we can bond through a familiar appreciation of the outdoors. So, while scenic vistas are definitely "in" right now, kicking back at Sykes Hot Springs with a few like minded adventurers can be just the right thing to initiate friendships. In the Ventana Wilderness, these broncos met a bearded mountain man who kindly shared his natural hot tub with them, though the fellow in the headband still seems a bit skeptical about the scenario. That or his bowels are acting up.

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6. Play an instrument in an inconvenient location

Yeah, we know it might make more sense to find your musical talent in a lesson room with a teacher, but those of us who prefer a bit more Wild in our lives would leap at the opportunity to take on the breathtaking challenge of strumming the six-string amidst gales an blusters. Here on Timber Top we remember that our souls need a little melody and a little majesty, and Lucy here found both at the same time, in Big Sur, CA.

Zion National Park, UT

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7. Connect with our universe

While Zion is renowned for its magnificent geologic features and some of the most diverse wildlife on the planet, it is also an excellent place to explore extraterrestrial worlds. Too often we choose not to notice the vastness of our universe, caught up in menial tasks and trivial disputes day after day. Lay awake one night under the stars, and you may find your spirit elevated and refreshed the next morning.

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8. Talk with angels

The view at Angel's Landing is nothing short of spectacular. Vast, looming rock walls and a seemingly endless valley that trails off into blue skies, this is truly a remarkable national treasure. Yet as sublime as this canyon is, the group would argue that the magical views aren't what gave this trip it's character. Rather, simply developing a powerful and harmonious outdoor community was the defining element. Take it from sophomore Max Reese: "Yeah, the valley was really cool and all, but for some reason the best part was spontaneously running around in the death valley sand dunes at night." Random as it is, we can never fully anticipate how wilderness will inspire us.

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

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9. Create a new fashion line

I know our top 10 list is getting less and less sanitary, but sometimes showers are overrated. what's better than covering yourself with mud, prancing around as a "mud-model" for a few blissful minutes, and then rinsing it all off in the blue mineral pools at the Grand Canyon's Beaver Falls? The answer you're looking for is: nothing. Nothing is better. This ITW trip must have developed some pretty cool friendships if they allowed themselves to get this weird.

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IMG_6428

10. Free climb out of the Grand Canyon

No, don't actually do this. It's not wild it's insane. But if you are looking for some wild adventures with a higher survival rate, try backpacking. Once threatened to be submerged in a project that would dam the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon has survived to become a national landmark and one of the most viscerally impactful places in the world. Our final ITW journey found time to hike throughout the canyon, frolic in waterfalls, camp in a canyon glen, and forge new friendships twice as grand as the walls surrounding them.

So, there you have it. Next spring break, when you find you have strong thirst for adventure, let us help you quench it. And in the spirit of being Wild, I will leave you with a quote that touches us all.

"We want everyone to know how neat nature is, instead of just me and Rodney knowin' it." - Lenny Pepperbottom

Wilde Tides: Exploring Half Moon Bay

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There goes Marko. He shouts to Sam from 30 yards away. "Come help us dislodge this crab!" Marko has never seen tide pools. He sees them with virgin vision, he hears, smells, tastes the salt and surf. Earlier that day he referred to them as "beach puddles." Beach puddles! He is the king of his new ocean-front domain, roaming with the seagulls and sea urchins. He rules with an iron fist until his Nike's slip into an unseen pool. The score: mother nature-1, Marko-0.

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Where's Kyle? He's saving the planet. One piece of trash at a time. The other's scour the place for sea creatures while Kyle takes matters into his own hands. First its an abandoned balloon (or shall I say dolphin killer), next its an old shoe, and before the day is over his arms are teeming with trash. "Hey, careful with your bare feet," cautions a leader. He acknowledges, but little do they know he is a seasoned veteran. He's waded through more tide pools than a rogue seagull looking for lunch.

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Isabelle has found Nature's sense of humor. Left, right, to and fro she hops, searching for the elusive "clam squirt." Elise and Keely have found it already, but poor Isabelle has had no such luck. The clams, she feels, have let her down. All of a sudden she takes the perfect step, pressure is applied in the right location and..."There it was!" she exclaims. A small jet of water expelled from a tiny hole in the mud. She has found what she came looking for, the answer to her prayers. The clam doesn't know that it made her day.

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Michael is an interesting chap. "A little to the left...no MY left," he negotiates with the subjects of his photo. "Ah, that was the one." He watches the water-world through the lens of his Nikon DSLR. He admires both the big and the small, snapping pictures of ocean vistas and hermit crabs. He meanders along the shore, his signature blue hat somehow managing to constrain boisterous bushels of brown hair. He captures smiles, he captures fun, and he shares it right back with us all.

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Maverick doesn't quite know what he's hunting for, but he's hunting it. His snout is experiencing sensory overload disorder at the moment, catching whiffs of countless other canines. But he's on to something and he knows it. His owner has been left in the dust, calling out for him as he tromps over snails and clam holes. Perhaps it's the scent of fish he most covets, or it might be that tennis ball he spots bouncing over to the left. "Hey, maybe I'll go say hi to that big mob of students," he muses. A dog is always eager. A dog is always earnest.

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The students make their way back to the cars under a darkening sky. They yearn for dinner (a burger or soup) and settle in for the ride back to Santa Clara. A marvelous marine world filled with anemones, urchins, crabs, snails, fish, worms, and slugs lingers in their thoughts, but not in their appetites. The pools have been conquered. The tides have turned.

Stay Wild!

Welcome to Wild!

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It's 6 AM and still dark on the campus of Santa Clara University. A handful of students sprawl out on a mound of backpacks in front of the Mission Church. Picture a bunch of bullfrogs sitting around a pond croaking, but instead of frogs it's students and instead of croaking they're yawning. No talking, just yawning. Why so early? This adventurous group of college puke has decided to take on Yosemite for the weekend, with the Into The Wild outdoor club. The leaders wrangle up the remaining stragglers and the troop is off before the sunlight has penetrated the Silicon Valley. Four hours later, Matt drums on the steering wheel to the beat of a soulful John Mayer number as the car rounds the bend into Yosemite Valley. Massive granite walls loom above, El Capitan and Half Dome strike a numb feeling of humility into our hearts, we are in awe of the majesty.

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By mid-day the clan has meandered up to a lookout above the valley. Some hang out on big boulders and soak in the view while eating a frightening amount of dried mangoes. Others watch as a slack-liner traverses a gap with a 1000 foot drop. They pass the time finding all sorts of new ways to say "Holy shit I could never do that." The sun is powerful. The sky is clear. There are no cars, no buildings and no grades.

It's 9 PM and the ranger will come around soon to tell us to be quiet. The campfire is roaring and half the group tries to make sense of the dutch oven. That night, in the tents, nobody realizes that they will have to go right back to school in two days. For now, they are trapped in a blissful escape with nothing but crisp mountain air to breathe.

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Stay Wild my friends!