Practical Tips for Driving Down
Lonely Highways Into the Dark

long-exposure photo of the sky and a highway and cliffs shows the stars as circular glowing trails and passing cars as streaks of light

Text and Photographs By Bill Dunford

  1. Keep right except to pass.
  2. If you have to use your phone, pull over.
  3. Sleep first, then drive. Or drive for a while, then sleep. Just don’t do both at the same time.
  4. When approaching an oncoming vehicle on a dark road, dim your headlights. Besides avoiding accidents, it’s a tip of the hat to the other driver. It’s a recognition that their eyes are probably tired, too, that they also have miles to go before they sleep. Exactly when to flick the switch is a bit of a dance, though. A quarter mile of separation between the two cars is probably too soon, but at least it shows courtesy. A hundred yards is probably too late, but it’s better than never. Anyone who doesn’t do it at all is either not paying attention to the road or is just a jerk.
  5. At a certain distance outside the city you’ll start seeing highway exits with the foreboding notice, “No Services.” But that just means there are no gas stations or fast food. Those are the exits that offer the best services: roads that lead past ranches and rivers to pines and lookout points. Canyons that block phone-ringing radio waves like a summer tree shades you from the sun. Long stretches where you can roll down the window (at the risk of a little dust) and smell sagebrush, or listen to rows of corn rustle past, or feel the late afternoon slip across the threshold to early evening. Places where it still gets dark at night! Where the incessant, insistent billboard lights and car dealership lights and subdivision lights are not sending their wasted photons shrilling into the sky, but instead the air is quiet with clarity. Where even in the shadows, the foxes and cougars have no trouble making out the motion of their prey, and the owls can plot a swooping course to the next fence post. Where the clean, black, encircling sky is as deep as the ocean. So. Many. Stars. But wait, that especially bright one, right there, is not a star; it’s Jupiter. That piercing point of light is a giant world, with a swirling storm large enough to swallow the Earth whole. Jupiter has planet-sized moons landscaped not only with ice, but volcanoes and canyons and underground oceans harboring more water than all of ours combined. Then there’s the Milky Way, arching across heaven above it all like the vaulted roof of an unfathomable cathedral. It’s not a shimmering wisp of dust – it’s more stars. Clouds of stars. Stars upon stars upon stars that continue until it passeth all understanding. Most of them are ringed by their own planets (surely some other “Earths” among them). So many stories. We gaze and we strain to hear, but most of them we’ll just never know.
  6. Sometimes at night, a small roadside shrine will catch your eye along the highway. Maybe a little white cross planted by a fence a few feet from the asphalt, illuminated with a single, solar-powered bulb. If you pull over and offer a quiet oblation, I promise you the ghost is there, and will tell you the news while the wind whispers through the barbed wire, down the fence line, and out across the night-wrapped plain.
Jupiter, Saturn, the galactic core of the Milky Way, and Earth. Skull Valley, Utah. July 2021
Salt Lake City, Utah. April 2021.
Petroglyphs carved into sandstone cliffs on the Colorado River more than a thousand years ago. Near Moab, Utah. January 2021.
An unexpected gift from the Sun: a series of massive solar storms sent waves of charged particles into space. As they washed over Earth, the planet’s magnetic field guided them to the north and south poles. But the storm was so powerful that even those of us far from the poles were privileged to see the show.
Near the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah on Nov. 4, 2021. Credit: NASA/Bill Dunford
The life-gifted planet, the only one we know (so far). Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. August 2021.
Three ancient worlds: Jupiter, Saturn, and Earth at the Colorado River near Canyonlands National Park, Utah. July 2021.
Trout Creek, Utah. June 2021.
Simpson Springs Pony Express Station, Utah, originally built in 1858, restored in 1975.
We still send messages as fast as we can manage. We even send them to our robotic scouts in the sky. The messages still travel relatively slowly. The higher they go, the slower they seem; it takes more than 21 hours for a message to reach Voyager 1 in interstellar space. June 2021.
Lunar eclipse moonset. Deer Creek, Utah. May 2021.
The Milky Way galaxy and one of its inhabitants.
Lamoille Canyon, Nevada. March 2021.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
– Amanda Gorman
Arches National Park, Utah. January 17, 2021.
Ancestral Puebloan people built this tower sometime around the year 1100. Then the sky turned more than 336,000 circles. The tower still stands.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado. May 2021.
The road to Ursa Major. Highway 279 near Moab, Utah. January 2021.
Motion is Hope. Near Echo, Utah. April 2021.
Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area, Utah. August 2021.
Stars, Aspens, Moonlight, and Sunflowers. 940 seconds of light at Guardsman Pass, Utah. September 2021.

Skull Valley, Utah. June 2021.

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