During the Summer, I watch the Moon. Night after night, I wait impatiently for it to dwindle to a slim crescent. When its noisy light has finally calmed, I know it’s time. I leave my house around 10 p.m. each night for a week or so, carrying bundles of gear in black cases to my Jeep, and each night I return around 3 in the morning.
When I pull into the driveway again, the Jeep is completely dusted, from the grill to the spare tire, in a fine, salty powder. Or it’s splattered with mud, or it’s coated slick with so many smashed bugs that I have to run the windshield wipers. Often all three. Bleary-eyed, I lurch back inside, lugging my black bundles.
I’ve spent another night in Skull Valley, Utah.
My neighbors wonder about this. One time, the guy next door was smoking on his front porch while I was loading my gear an hour after dark, and he asked me what I was up to. I told him it was kinda for work, to which he replied, “You take your job too f—ing seriously.”
Skull Valley is not known for its nightlife. It’s found just southwest of the Great Salt Lake, about 50 miles outside of Salt Lake City. It’s roughly 40 miles long, and a little narrower than that, bordered on the north by Interstate-80 and on the south by the Dugway Proving Ground, a U.S. Army facility built in the 40s to test chemical and biological weapons. In between lives a permanent population of fewer than 200 people.
Skull Valley is a bay on the easternmost shore of what naturalist Stephen Trimble dubbed the Sagebrush Ocean, the vast desert region officially called the Great Basin, which stretches from the Rockies to the Sierra Nevada. The valley is arid and alkaline, except for a few spots where springs well up into unlikely marshes. It’s free of paved roads except for the straight, single-minded artery of Highway 196.
There’s one thing in particular about this valley that interests me most: it’s very, very dark there at night. Few buildings, scant traffic, but even more importantly, there’s nothing but more desert for hundreds of miles beyond. True, if you look to the east, the distant glow of Salt Lake City casts a false dawn in the midnight sky, but in every other direction, nothing but profound black…and countless stars. Not a few flecks of light like you might see in the suburbs. A dizzying snowfall of stars.
That’s why I go there, to photograph the night sky, especially the Milky Way. You can really see it out there in the desert, stretching from horizon to horizon like a column of thin, glowing smoke. And that’s just what you get with your eyes. What the camera sees is much more, a vibrant canvas of light, textures, and colors — a surprising numbers of colors. Electric blues, purples, reds.
There’s no nightlife in Skull Valley, but there is plenty of life in the night, both in the sky and on the ground. That’s why I go there. That’s what I’m looking for. That’s what I’ve found, and more.
First, a Couple of Ghost Stories
I shoot the sky in very dark, very remote places. But I’m rarely completely alone. I will not lie to you, sometimes it’s scary.
One night late this Summer I was climbing around some car-sized boulders, looking for interesting shapes to silhouette against the sky in a photo. Near the top of a hill I came across a cave, and when I looked in — I jumped. There in the dark, reflected in the light of my headlamp, was someone holding up a pair of binoculars.
For some reason my immediate thought was that this person was another photographer or sky gazer.
I said, “Oh, sorry!” thinking I might have blocked their view or ruined their shot. They didn’t say anything.
Of course, I soon realized these weren’t binoculars, but a set of large eyes. I couldn’t see anything else in the cave but those eyes. They just…regarded me.
I backed slowly away and down the hill. I couldn’t see or hear anything from the creature. Once I reached a respectful distance, I took this series of shots. The cave is on the right, obscured by a rock. Then I headed straight to the Jeep. When I got home, I zoomed in as much as I could. Because of the distance and the type of lens I was using, there just aren’t enough pixels in this image to see anything clearly, but something had tracked me…
Based on the size of the eyes, their height off the ground, and the creature’s careful quiet, I have to believe it was a large cat. Cougar? Bobcat? Both live in the area, but I can’t be sure.
Anyway, I think there’s a good chance that someday, my last words will be me apologizing to a mountain lion.
This desert is home to rattlesnakes and scorpions, too, though I haven’t encountered them yet. That’s just it, though. It is their home. I won’t begrudge them any actions they take in their own defense. So, I try to be and careful and respectful, stick to established trails, and hope I don’t have to worry too much. Even when the coyotes howl and freeze my blood, I know my reaction is nothing but a very old story written deep in my brain, and that they won’t really harm me.
People are another story.
One night, I was photographing a large tree (a singularly rare find in Skull Valley) against a backdrop of stars. It was about 1 a.m. in a moonless, windless, especially lonely kind of dark. I was adjusting some camera settings when I saw a flashlight flick on about 100 feet away, out there in the ink-black ether. It bobbed along for a minute, then it froze. Then it winked out. Several minutes went by, and it didn’t reappear. It was just me, the darkness…and someone else. I left.
That said, the truth is most times people have pleasantly surprised me. Once I was shooting stars reflected in a spring-fed pond. There was a group of teenagers partying a little way off in the dark. After a while they got quiet, and several of them approached me. This oughta be interesting, I thought. Turns out they could see the lights on my camera, and they were afraid I was recording or otherwise spying on them.
Nah, I said, and I showed them the last few frames I had shot. Their jaws dropped. We spent a full 15 minutes talking about the night sky and what you could see if you looked. I think some of them wanted to stay even longer.
I run into other photographers sometimes. Or campers around a fire. Or hikers avoiding the blinding day heat. We nod at each other as we pass on the trail and say hello out loud. “I’m not a murderer,” is implicitly part of what we’re saying to each other. But also there’s a bit of conspiratorial spirit. “Isn’t it cool out here? Why doesn’t everyone know about this?” A kinship of night walkers.
Once, as I was pulled over on Highway 196 at about 2 a.m. in search of sunflowers to frame against the sky, a huge semi truck lumbered by. After it passed, the truck’s brakes screeched and it began to slow down, shuddering. It eventually came to a complete stop — and then the driver threw the entire rig into reverse.
I knew what was happening, so I ran toward the truck to intercept it. When I reached the cab, the driver rolled down the window and I asked him if he were coming back to check on me.
“Yep,” he said. I told him I was fine, just taking pictures of the sky. I suspect that he thought this was a bizarre thing to be doing deep in the desert on a moonless night, but he just nodded. I thanked him, wished him a good run, and he rumbled off on his way.
I still think most people are good, most of the time. At least that’s been my experience so far in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.
The Inverted Ocean
I can’t get enough of the night sky.
It looks peaceful, but it is not still. It’s in constant motion on time scales ranging from split seconds to eons. Meteors, bits of rock from space, rain down continuously, tons of them per day, usually burning up in the blink of an eye. Watch the stars for just a few minutes against the horizon, and you can see they’re moving. During the hours of the night, the entire set of stars seems to wheel about in a great circle. Over the course of weeks, the planets can be seen wandering against the background constellations. Across centuries, the stars themselves change positions. Over the ages, they flower and die and new generations take their places.
The sky is not quiet. Human-made spacecraft rise through it and fall back into it and criss-cross it. At the high edges of the atmosphere, charged particles from the Sun cause the aurora to shimmer and radios on the ground to hiss. Light we can’t see streams through the air, offering truly strange vistas that only become visible when we augment our eyes with cameras and telescopes.
The sky is not flat. It’s deep, like an inverted ocean over our heads. Of course, it’s far, far deeper deeper than any Earthly ocean, deeper even than any ocean we can understand.
The night sky is pretty if you just look at it. But point a digital camera heavenward and it will, uh, show you some things. It will let you dive very, very deep.
I took the photo below after clambering up a granite cliff at White Rock, along the southern edge of Skull Valley. (This was before the maybe-cougar incident, and now I would be more careful.) It was especially dark. All I could see was the ghost of a tree in the phantom light of the Milky Way.
I mounted the camera onto a tripod, which I poised right at the rocky edge because I needed this angle to be just right. Normally, when you snap a photo the shutter opens for a split second and you hear that quick click. For this picture, I configured the camera so that when I pressed the button, the shutter would stay open for a full 13 seconds, and the lens would open wide to take in all the light it could during those seconds. This was the result.
Here’s what we can see in this photo. We’ll go from shallow to deep, like rows of old friends in a grade school class portrait, front row to back.
The tree is about 20 feet in front of you, and the granite outcrops on the horizon are about 500 feet away.
The next closest thing you can see is a green glow faintly visible across the lower part of the sky. It’s a part of the atmosphere, starting roughly 50 miles straight up, where cosmic rays and other processes cause the air itself to glow.
Next is the bright streak. That’s the International Space Station, with six people living and working aboard it at the time of this photo. The station orbits about 250 miles up. It reflects sunlight from its gleaming metal surfaces, and from the ground it looks like a bright, unblinking star moving at a quick-but-stately pace through the sky. Over the course of this 13-second exposure it traced a glowing trail of light on the camera’s sensor.
Now, a bit of jump. It’s a big jump. The next closest object is the bright “star” just to the right of the streak. That’s actually Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. It’s a world, and a whole family of worlds. It could fit more than a thousand Earths inside it. It’s home to storms that last hundreds of years, a moon covered in active volcanoes, and other moons that hide entire oceans of liquid water underground. At the moment I took this picture, it was 495 million miles away.
Saturn, rings and all, is one of the “stars” in the upper left corner. It was 900 million miles away.
Another very big jump now, out to the actual stars. Each one is a Sun, of course, many of them much bigger and brighter than our own, but so far away they’re just dots. The closest ones are a few light years away. A light year is an unimaginably vast distance, the space that light itself can cross in a year. Famously, this travel time means that looking into the sky is looking back in time; the deeper you look the farther back you go. We’re seeing stars that are 10 light years away as they appeared 10 years ago. We can set the dial of the time machine 20 years back or so for the nearby stars, dozens of years back for the stars in the middle distance, and hundreds of years back for others deeper in the sky.
Next, there are vast lanes of gas and dust that block some of the starlight, forming the dark patches you can see, and patterns that some cultures recognize like we recognize constellations.
Beyond that, more stars, and then more stars…and then still more stars, all fusing together in our limited vision into the sparkling cloud of suns we call the Milky Way, hundreds of billions of stars strong.
There’s something else. I can’t look at a photo like this without thinking about all the things that are found within its frame that you can’t see. For example, at this very moment the Juno spacecraft is flying somewhere near Jupiter. It’s a robotic probe, studying the planet’s mysterious interior. This machine was built by human hands…and it’s now sailing deep within the sky.
Even deeper is the New Horizons spacecraft, which sped past Pluto a few years ago. (Pluto is found, but not visible, in the upper left part of this picture, three billion miles away.) Now, New Horizons is headed eventually out of the solar system entirely, a toy sailing ship set adrift in an ocean with no end. Aboard the spacecraft, there’s a small container carrying some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto. And a Maryland quarter.
There’s much more, so much more. Just in the past few years, astronomers have confirmed the existence of thousands of exoplanets, planets outside our own solar system, going around all these other stars. On average, every star in this shot has at least one planet. Most have several. Think of the worlds, upon worlds, upon worlds. You can’t even imagine them all, but you can try.
This particular patch of sky is special for yet another reason. It’s no accident that it parades such showy colors and complex textures. The camera here is pointed toward the center of the Milky Way galaxy…galactic north. This is the galactic core, home to countless stars in all stages of life, and all the clouds of dust and gas that are those stars’ nurseries and their graveyards.
Finally, at the galaxy’s very center, spins a massive black hole. Black holes are usually described as monsters, and this one is definitely big enough to earn the title. But I think of black holes as another part of nature. They’re no more monsters, and no less, than a heavy thundercloud. Whatever you call it, the black hole found within the borders of this picture is the point around which the entire galaxy pirouettes, making one rotation every 200 million years.
To be honest, sometimes it makes me dizzy.
The Wanna-Be Space Cowboy of Horseshoe Springs
I’m a self-taught photographer. I guess I’d consider myself a journeyman — I’ve learned a lot, but I have a long way to go before I master the craft. I take pleasure in the skills I’ve picked up so far, though. After all that practice in the dark, I could set up a tripod and the camera blindfolded. I know where every switch and dial is and what it does by how it feels under my thumb.
I’ve begun to get a sense of the sky and its rhythms, maybe even a small sliver of what previous generations knew as a matter of course. Without thinking about it, I know on any given day when the moon rises and its phase. I know where the planets are in the sky, and about what time they rise and set. I can tell what season it is based on the positions of the constellations.
I study a lot of star maps and apps. Over time, I’ve begun constructing a kind of three dimensional model in my head, picturing how the Earth turning relates to the sky moving, to the direction of incoming meteor showers, to the column of air rising miles above me that’s dark near the ground but lit by moonlight higher up. (There’s twilight, then there’s astronomical twilight, and the camera can see the difference.) The synapses in my brain are growing up and down, meeting in the middle, connecting the sky to the ground in my mind’s eye.
The skyscape has become as familiar as the landscape, full of old friends: Orion taking Paul Bunyan strides through the Winter and Scorpius stretching out its long, bejeweled tail in the Summer. “Oh hi,” I’ll catch myself saying to Jupiter when I notice it.
I’m an outsider, but I’m gradually getting to know Skull Valley, too. I love the place names: Lone Rock, the Muskrat Fire Station, Horseshoe Knoll looking over Horseshoe Spring.
I like knowing that the Donner Party crossed these fields of sagebrush, still thinking they’d make California in no time. And that the salt flats at the north end of the valley were left behind by an expansive inland sea, which filled all these valleys 14 millennia ago. (Looking up to the surrounding hills, you can still clearly see where shoreline was.)
In Skull Valley, like anywhere else, getting to the right place at the right time for the right shot is a bit of an expedition. It always involves a sacrifice of fuel and sleep, and sometimes ego. There are hours of driving, hours of standing in the dark and cold and ever-present dust. Actually, standing is ok. It’s tripping blindly over rocks that sucks. Torn clothes are not uncommon, and I once spent months in physical therapy for the weird way I collapsed after stumbling on a rock, balancing the camera the whole way down but sacrificing some ligaments on the way.
I’ve come to take pleasure in the trip, though. I mean, road trips are fun. I like the maps. I like the open space. I always smile at the ridiculously expansive billowing of fine dust that trails me on the back roads. I like pulling into the truck stop in Tooele at 2 a.m. for a steaming hot cup and, I’ll admit, sometimes a stale donut.
There is a lot of wrestling with the weather, watching clouds. When I’m shooting, I check the weather app with religious obsession, even though it honestly doesn’t help that much. “Partly cloudy.” What does that even mean? Can I see the galactic core before Saturn sets, or not? Is there a thin haze at 20,000 feet, which will make the stars in my photos swell up to the size of basketballs, or is the air as coldly crisp as a block of transparent ice?
The weather in the desert can change fast, then change again. Sudden storms can explore out of nowhere. Actually, a little lighting could be good, to be honest. Have you ever noticed a towering thunderhead surrounded by blue sky? Imagine that, but at night, swelling up into the stars, lit by lightning from the inside. Such shots exist, and I want one of my own.
The smells of the valley’s (mostly) clear air will ignite flashes of memory long after my last trip to the desert, I’m sure: sagebrush wet with rain, dust, cattle, gasoline, gunpowder, the mud flats near the Great Salt Lake.
Sometimes I’ll drive far enough west that the only two radio stations left are a Christian ministry and a country music station. I’ve listened to more country and radio gospel during the past few summers than in all my previous life combined, and I’ve noticed that a lot of country songs like to mix the two topics. Past midnight, with the Milky Way rising right up to the sky’s steeple, I’m surprisingly open to this line of thinking.
When I spend enough time out there, I can start feeling like a cowboy myself. Sometimes horses gallop alongside me near the road. The Pony Express trail skirts the southern edge of the valley. I have dirt on boots and on my tires, and Jason Isbell on my radio. Then I pass a truck loaded with bales, and I realize I’m full of something that comes from horses, and it isn’t the spirit of the open range. There have been real cowboys in Skull Valley for a long time, and they still work it every day.
The Thinnest of Boundaries
The valley seems quiet when you first get there. But long hours standing at the camera will open your ears eventually. There are crickets, kangaroo mice rustling at the base of lone Juniper trees, long draughts of wind. My favorite are the bats; you can hear their little pitched pings bouncing off the stone. For some reason I find them comforting.
All kinds of desert wildlife makes its way here, surviving despite the herds of cows and bison, not to mention the occasional farm cat. I’ve seen hawks, pronghorns, porcupines, deer, and migratory birds that wend their way south after a stop at the Great Salt Lake.
Don’t forget the mosquitoes, as much a part of life’s tangled web as any other creature. If a mountain lion doesn’t get me, it might be bloodsuckers. You’ll find my desiccated body next to my camera, and the last picture on the memory card will be a group selfie taken by mosquitoes.
The wildlife can present a serious challenge to night drivers. The long-tailed kangaroo rats race down every road, scurrying fast but sometimes not fast enough. Once I wrote an entire cursive phrase on the highway in tire rubber while swerving to miss a fox that apparated right in front of me. It looked directly into my headlights, and then it was gone, leaving only the sight of its fierce, sapphire retinas burned directly onto my own.
The jackrabbits are the worst. So many poor bunnies. I have a theory, not yet contested by biologists, that there are more rabbits out than usual when I go to shoot the sky. I’m purposely there when there’s no Moon. Maybe they venture out then, too, safer than usual from the gaze of hawks?
In any case, they evolved to avoid predators that are not my Jeep. Instead of simply running away when it approaches, they zig zag back and forth, right in my path. I follow slowly behind them. They’ll do this for miles. I’ve even tried stopping with the lights off for a few minutes to give them an out, but when I turn the lights back on they’re still there, ready to run right in front of the car again.
There are some wildlife encounters for which I have no photographs. At this spot, I was parked in order to fetch the tripod and camera. Saturn was setting directly at the end of the road, and I didn’t want to miss that. (I’m continually amazed by the way that the universe marks events in billion-year increments, yet everything is also in so much motion that when you’re doing nature photography a sunset or a storm or a star are gone just like that if you don’t hurry.)
When I looked up, I saw the shadowy, starlit forms of a dozen wild horses trotting from east to west. They made no sound. I could barely even see them, except where they cut the beam of my headlights. How to describe them? A dream? The movement of the Earth itself turning?
The big camera wasn’t within reach, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was configured to catch starlight, not dreams, and it would have taken long seconds to change that. So I fumbled for my phone. Even that was far too late.
The horses were very likely part of the Onaqui herd, a federally managed population that ranges on the lands around Dugway. I’d tried before to catch them during day trips, only to have them choose when and where they wanted to be seen. Only Saturn and I will remember the moment.
The encounters with nature I’ve had in Skull Valley remind me of something important. You’ll see a lot of Milky Way photographs online that are spectacular, but that make my skin crawl, frankly. Their colors are garishly oversaturated in post editing, and many are multiple exposures that have been combined into a single image, sometimes artfully, sometimes less so, to render both the land and the sky in brightly lit tones.
To each their own; it’s as much art as science. But I make night sky photographs that are almost always single exposures, and I try to edit them with a very light hand. Sometimes this works out great, and sometimes, like in the image above, I fail to produce a beautiful scene.
I’m studying both the art and the science of this process, and I’m getting better. Meanwhile, the single-exposure-lightly-processed thing remains important to me, for a couple of reasons. One is that I sometimes use my photos at work to illustrate articles and videos on NASA’s websites.
The other is that I’m fascinated by the whisper-thin line between Earth and space. A single photo that shows both the ground and the stars and planets in the sky reminds me that the Earth, and all of us, are floating in space right now. We live in the galaxy. Every tree and sagebrush and rabbit is a galactic citizen.
The universe — stars, planets, nebulae, black holes, all of it — is not some abstract notion, vaguely out there somewhere. We’re inside it, right now, clinging to the side of a spinning sphere that’s moving through it, the thinnest of airy boundaries between us and all the rest.
Space is nature. A mountain on the Moon, the rings of Saturn, or a sunset seen from the surface of Mars are no less part of nature than an Earthly sunrise, which is nothing other than a planet turning in space to face a star.
Smoke On the Horizon
As you can guess by the name, Skull Valley is remote, and by many standards desolate. That’s probably why they located the Goshute Indian Reservation here, not because it was a nice location for stargazing…
It’s not all sunflowers and moonlight out here.
In fact, there are many reminders of what people do with land they think of as expendable, and the Dugway installation is the most obvious example. (In the 60s, a chemical warfare test gone wrong infamously left hundreds of sheep dead, though as far as we know this kind of open air testing is a thing of the past.)
There’s pollution on a grand scale, and on a personal scale. My favorite place to take pictures is Lone Rock, which I use photographically as a kind of poor man’s Devils Tower. It’s a block of dark limestone that rises, seemly out of nowhere, a few hundred feet above the desert floor, and for centuries it must have been an island in Lake Bonneville’s ancient waters. In photos, it provides a dramatic solid counterpoint to the etherial sky scapes.
In the daylight, it’s not a great place for a picnic, to be honest. Shotgun shells and broken glass crunch underfoot, and sometimes I’ll find the weirdest stuff, ranging from an old gas lantern to confetti. (Instagram-ers, clean your crap up after you’re done!)
In places, sad ghosts roam the sagebrush. On the east bench of the valley stands what little remains of Iosepa, a town founded by Hawaiian settlers in the mid 19th century. Some of the volcanic rock reminded them of home. They made a good enough go of it for decades…and then leprosy broke out.
When it comes to hard stories, I’m sure I don’t know the half of it.
I can’t help but think of the Earth as a planet out here, but that includes the perils it faces. Sometimes I’ll rush to the valley because it’s finally a nice, cloudless night, only to find there’s so much smoke from wildfires that the stars are swimming in brown muck. Two summers ago was the worst so far — and the smoke came from fires as far away as California.
The fact I’m even out here tells one of the biggest tales. Every year, you have to drive farther and farther to find a dark sky. I’m incredibly lucky to even have the option; in most places across the country there is literally nowhere you can go where it gets truly dark at night.
Even out here, the quiet shadows are pierced by the occasional shriek of car headlights, or the tinny wail of a needlessly bright spotlight keeping a bank of propane tanks or a tractor garage illuminated.
Most places, a constant roar suffocates the entire sky.
Recently, yet another kind of pollution is multiplying like mosquitoes. Aircraft and satellites have always been an annoyance for stargazers and photographers, taking all the joys of rush hour and smearing it on the heavens. (Altogether, I’ve spent hours waiting for planes to move out of the way, or digitally airbrushing their scratches out of otherwise pristine images.)
Now, rocket builder SpaceX has unleashed Starlink, its project to provide global internet access from space. To accomplish this, the company is right now launching fleets of satellites into low orbit every few weeks. Satellites serve important functions (including one of the most vital ways of monitoring the health of the environment) and many of them are not visually intrusive. The problem with Starlink is that apparently its birds are bright — and there will be TENS of THOUSANDS of them.
It’s not yet clear exactly how much the megaconstellation of Starlink satellites will blight the sky, but already time-lapse videos are circulating that show them shooting across the night dozens at a time, like bursts of anti-aircraft gunfire in World War II. They’re visible all over the world. They will be in orbit for years.
There is some debate, but not that much debate, about how Starlink will affect astronomy. This is a very rare phrase for me to say: forget astronomy for a minute. We’re talking about semi-permanently defacing the sky itself, based on the unilateral decisions of a single company. It’s very much like someone decided to dye the ocean pink, permanently. It’s happening right now, and most people haven’t even heard about it.
For now at least, the sky is still there. There are still places you can see it. There are still places to breathe in the twilight.
Last summer, I went to Skull Valley. I smelled the sage and watched horses from a ways off, flicking their tails and doing a kind of side-stepping dance in the dust. I planted the tripod in the soil and opened the camera’s eyes.
It was totally silent.
The first voice I noticed was Jupiter’s. Clear, both bright and deep. Then Saturn’s, distant and steady and somehow a little sad.
Antares joined next, followed in twos and threes and fours by other stars. The Sun had set, but not from the vantage point of the satellites, who moved quickly as if scurrying off the stage.
Just at the edge of vision now, hundreds more stars.
No, wait. There are thousands joining in now. So many thousands. So many different colors.
Slowly, slowly, the thin curtain of illuminated air is drawn back entirely. Now I see they were there the whole the time, the full, booming chorus.
From somewhere nearby, the coyotes join in.