The Daily Beast
Dark Ranger on America’s Lonely Road
Tashka In July 1986, Life magazine described US Route 50 as “the most lonely road in the United States.” Below one depressing photo, the magazine described the two-lane highway as follows: “I don’t have any points of interest. I don’t recommend it.” The 287-mile US50 from Erie to Fernley, Nevada passes through nine towns, two abandoned camps, some petrol pumps, and occasionally coyotes. I will. “We warn all drivers not to drive there,” says a AAA representative. “Unless they are confident in their survival skills.” It was a huge dis, but Nevada’s tourism authorities were no longer happy. Suddenly, Life’s disapproval of small, depressing highways became a brand, which allowed it to spread among certain dark travelers. The state has put up a new name, HWY 50, a sign promoting America’s most lonely road. Only three months after the article was published, the US 50 was at least of interest to even the most exhausted AAA counselors. The 76,000 acres of land, miles away from the freeway, have undergone a unique brand upgrade. In October 1986, Congress passed a law establishing the Great Basin National Park. The park was intended to serve as a representative sample of the entire Great Basin region, a large watershed that spans five states, including almost all of Nevada. All water found in the Great Basin drains or evaporates internally and never reaches the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, what’s happening in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. The park itself is less than 300 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, the brightest part of the globe when viewed from space. But the loneliest roads in the country don’t have many headlights. Only 68 people live in Baker, Nevada, the closest town to the Great Basin. “We’re pretty rare,” Ranger Annie Gililand told me when she met her near the visitor center. “This is one, if not the darkest, of the 48 states in the continental United States.” Annie is a “dark ranger” and part of an elite team of park staff who lead regular astronomical presentations. .. “I love you,” she told me. Smile. “It makes me sound like a superhero.” The Dark Rangers are the real guardians of the galaxy, whose mission is to keep the lights in the park low so that visitors aren’t distracted from the sky. .. In the Great Basin, stars are the attraction of stars. Before meeting Annie, I spent the day hiking a few short trails and driving the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive in the park. The scenery I saw was comfortable enough, but at least in my eyes, most of it was the same type of pinion juniper forest found throughout the Great Basin region. When the Great Basin goes down, it may look as “great” as the Great Plains. That’s why rangers like Annie encourage visitors to stick. Here, they say … half of the park … after dark. Having heard about the Great Basin sky, I timed my visit to arrive on the night of the new moon, the darkest possible night. It was also a weekend night, which meant Annie would host one of her popular astronomy talks. As the sun went down, small crowds began to form in the parking lot. Flashlights were banned. Annie wanted our eyes to adjust naturally. When the stars finally debuted, the canopy that illuminates overhead did not hit me as what should be called the “dark sky.” Wind Cave was dark. This was the brightest sky I have ever seen. The Milky Way rising from the east slowly crossed the Great Basin horizon. It looked as if the heavens were torn. This wasn’t a faint constellation where you had to struggle to connect the dots just to see a vaguely similar shape to a bear chasing twin crabs. This was a must-see interstellar Grand Canyon, a huge band of light that was so brilliant that it cast a shadow on the ground. It was difficult to understand that all of these thousands of stars were there all the time, hiding in a clear view. I realized that every other probably beautiful starry night in my life was a symphony with missing notes. At the Great Basin, I was finally able to understand the complete composition. Astronomers will tell you that I have only seen a small part of the universe. Under the best conditions, the human eye can see less than 5,000 of the billions of stars shining in our galaxy alone. When I tried to incorporate them all, I wondered if the limiting factor was the human brain, not the eyes. When I threw dozens more white pin pricks, I felt like my head exploded. From time to time I lowered my eyes and rested my neck for a few minutes, and I saw the heads of 100 other tourists crawling into the sky. Mysteriously wide. Annie had a telescope in the parking lot for those who wanted to find out more. As I walked to look into Jupiter, I met an army of Boy Scouts who came to the park to earn an astronomical achievement badge from Farmington, New Mexico. I asked one of the scouts if the sky was different from what he was accustomed to going home. “I think our world is so small and the galaxies there are so big.” At a time when most kids thought they were the center of the universe, the Great Basin star told him he was. It helped me to remind myself that I wasn’t. For most Americans, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain this kind of cosmic insight. More than two-thirds of the country live in areas where the Milky Way cannot be seen from the backyard. Today we know much more about the universe than any generation in history, but much less. When the International Dark-Sky Association announced in 2016 that it recognized the Great Basin as a “dark sky park,” program manager John Valenting Rate Basin said, “It was as close as possible to the night sky before the invention of the lamp.” I told the Las Vegas Review Journal. It’s easy to forget that the era he was referring to wasn’t really the case. Long before that. Thomas Edison’s company didn’t start selling bulbs until the 1880s, and it took a long time for the city to turn into the shining metropolis we know today. However, our world is getting brighter and brighter. The worst predictions are that by 2025, there may be no dark skies left in the 48 states of the continental United States. Before being certified as a Dark Sky Park, the Great Basin first had to adjust all its luminaires downwards. The light bulbs around the visitor center have been modified to use low wattage red lights. This is the color that allows our eyes to adapt well to the darkness. (That’s why everything from the numbers on the digital alarm clock to the inside of the submarine’s control room is lit red.) Most importantly, the park tried not to use more light than it needed. It was turned off when something wasn’t being used. It’s how easy it is to deal with light pollution. It can literally disappear by flicking the switch. Light pollution is reversible. Parks responsible for the protection of our natural resource, “undamaged”, have an ecological responsibility to consider the effects of light. Artificial light sources can cause great disruption to the circadian rhythms of animals in the park and affect the relationship between nocturnal predators and their prey. Lights can also confuse species that rely on the moon and stars for navigation clues. Every year in Florida, millions of sea turtle hatches die as they walk along the beach in the direction of an artificial light source, confusing the brilliance of a condo with light. Of the moon. A frog that screams at night looking for a companion may not realize it’s night if it’s too bright outside. If a man does not feel like making music for a baby makin, a woman will not mate and the frog population will die. Beyond the environmental impact of light pollution, when I saw the stars of the Great Basin, I remembered that the night sky itself was a valuable resource to preserve. The view of what lies beyond our world can be as powerful and transformative as the other landscapes found on its surface. Unfortunately, protecting that view is beyond the power of a few dark rangers. The view of what lies beyond our world can be as powerful and transformative as the other landscapes found on its surface. Only the footprints of Conor Knighton Penguin Random House LLC are left. Excerpt from Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton Copyright © 2020 by Conor Knighton. Excerpt with permission from Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. 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