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Waiting For A Star To Fall: Perseid-Watching In The Antelope Valley

Our little encampment in the Northwest Antelope Valley

Last night – well technically early this morning – a few friends and I went out to the Antelope Valley to watch the Perseid Meteor shower, which makes its peak this week.

We went out some 88 miles, north on the 5, east on the 138 and north on 170th Street West, just past the Los Angeles-Kern County line to a remote location and pulled over the road to watch the annual celestial fireworks fall. We brought blankets (despite this being summer, it was chilly and windy out there), lawn/camping chairs and some snacks.  My friend Keith showed me his Google Sky Map application on his Android phone, which shows you the constellations on the screen as you point to them in real-time! Some of them used my friend Tom’s pickup truckbed as an ideal platform for viewing the sky. Even while driving up towards the Grapevine on the I-5, I could see one streak across the sky from the road.

Someone in our group asked what a meteor shower was, and I, in my Griffith Observatory tourguide mode, explained to her that, if the Earth is a car, the atmosphere is its windshield, and flying bugs were the trailing dust left behind by passing comets, then the bug splatter is the meteor shower. Okay, weird analogy, but you get the picture. And meteor showers are self-cleaning.

It wasn’t totally perfect, as one can easily see the glow of light pollution from Lancaster and Palmdale to the southeast, Los Angeles to the south and Bakersfield to the north, but the view of the sky was spectacular, yielding a bright view of the rest of the Milky Way galaxy, an unusually bright Jupiter (the brightest object in the sky, due to the absence of the moon at this time), a satellite and of course the meteors.

THIS is what the sky looks like form a digital camera. Sorry, folks.

There were a few bright ones, a few dim ones, some that streaked fast, and some that streaked slow enough to leave a smoke trail behind. Many times I’d be looking at another part of the sky when the others would shout, “Ooooh!” and I would miss it my the time I turned my head. Even though I know what they are, I always get a chill up my spine seeing them.

We were there from about 2 a.m. to 4:40 a.m. and while making our way back down the Grapevine, the bluish glow of the morning enveloped the sky to the east.  After dropping some friends off in the Valley, I actually joined the early morning commute back home.

There are better places in Southern California, such as Joshua Tree out past Palm Springs, though that entails a couple more hours of driving. But for just an hour out of the Los Angeles area, the northwestern Antelope Valley can’t be beat; it’s just eight miles north of the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. My parents even own a plot of vacant land not far from where we watched the stars (going there proved difficult at night as the road leading to the property was not paved, nor was there signage for the dirt road).

The beauty of the “nothingness” might not last forever, as the area just east of the 5/138 interchange is the proposed site of a planned community of 20,000 called Centennial. Meant to provide hosing and an employment center midway between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, the community claims to be pedestrian-friendly and well-planned. But even still, having 20,000 people living just a few miles away from the northwest Antelope Valley means more light pollution and, ironically, that “nothing” may one day be no more. When we were out there, only three pickup trucks passed by us on the road and it seemed like we had the land all to ourselves.

For a person born and raised in the city, going outside the city can be awe-inspiring. At one point, I shut my iPod boombox off just to enjoy the silence and serenity. The only sound aside from the three trucks that rolled bywas the howl of the wind against the nearby Joshua trees. Even without a meteor shower, just going outside there, hanging out and chilling with actual friends beats clicking “Like” on a Facebook window.

I’ll definitely plan more meteor shower trips in the coming months, or even just short getaways from the city.

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