Thursday, February 1, 2018

A close encounter with infinity at Takhlakh Lake

There is an illusive experience that may be found only in the depths of space, or in the wildest corners of our public. The realization of our utter insignificance in comparison with the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos is a revelation that most of the human race never experiences. People tend to bury themselves in the safe, comforting bubbles we all create for ourselves, tucked away inside a house or high in an apartment building within the concealing haze of our atmosphere. It is easy, in such a life, to believe that there is nothing more; that we are an unstoppable force in a tiny, helpless world. It takes a special sort of experience to shatter such delusions.

Those who chose to explore our public lands will find wonders that make them feel small indeed. Small adventures give you a taste of the grander scheme, but seldom do they cross the line into illusion shattering territory. Still, growing up with the small adventures, one tends not to build up the really strong homo-aggrandizement. Yet, even for me, with all I have seen, it was not until last summer that I got a real look at the true scale of the universe.

We were camped on the shores of Takhlakh Lake, deep in the heart of Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a full hour's drive from the nearest town. We had spent the day swimming in the lake and hiking in the alpine meadows at the foot of Mt. Adams, and had just finished a late, hearty camp meal of chicken, potato, and cheese casserole. As I picked my way through the noise of the campground to fetch the water for the washing up, the last rays of the sun faded, and stars began peeking through the alpine sky.

I am a sucker for a good clear night in the mountains. I’ve often sat, teeth chattering from the cold, capturing long exposure photos. It’s always a special experience that I’ve found to be well worth the significant loss of sleep. However, I’ve never witnessed any sky to compare with what I found when I returned to the shore of the lake at midnight. An ocean of stars spread out above me - the shimmering glory of it filling every corner of the vast sky without even the smallest taint of pollution from cities or towns. It was the sort of sky that if you looked at one small part for long enough, you'd realize that there are stars behind the stars you see at first, and more behind them. You'd feel that if you looked long enough, your mind might leave its body and just drift up from star to star forever.

But even that wasn’t what blew my mind that night. It was looking down that did that! At my feet was the lake, stretching out to melt into the blackness of the far shore with the reflected glow of the glaciers on Mt. Adams hovering between sky…… and the sky…….

A perfect reflection, the lake was a mirror beyond compare. It was as if I stood on the razor edge of a vast hole going clear through the earth. Stars above, stars below, and the earth so eggshell thin between that it seemed a miracle our little blue world didn’t simply break like fine porcelain. Everywhere I looked were the pinpricks of stars, the little smears of galaxies, and through it all ran the titanic river of light that is our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

I don’t know exactly how long I must have stood there, unable to pull my eyes from this mind bending display. Every second that passed I could feel myself shrink - falling away until I all but disappeared within that truly endless panorama. I can only think this must be what it’s like to step out of the air lock of a spaceship for the first time, only here I had no confining, bulky suit to stand between me and the aetheric depths.

Eventually I wobbled, nearly falling off that precipice of my imagination to shatter the perfect calm.  I caught myself, snapped my pictures, and headed back to the warm sleeping bag that waited for me. However, the vision I experienced has never truly left me, and I don’t think it ever will. Once you’ve seen the infinite, and realized in comparison your own size, you are irrevocably changed by the experience. It is an experience I couldn’t have had without our public lands and the wild places they protect.


This post was written in one hour for the #NatureWritingChallenge

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