A last-minute ride to see the stars

Or how I decided on 2 hours' notice to ride to the desert to see the Perseids.

This last Friday I decided to see the Perseids. I must admit that I have never seen them before. Unlike Halley’s comet — which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — the Perseids are a yearly celestial event. So it’s easy to postpone it for next year. I guess it’s true what they say: one of these days is none of these days. But for me, this will be the year! It’s — well — written in the stars!

Sunrise in the desert

Said and done, I booked a session at the Garraf Observatory, an astronomical observatory located in a natural park, just outside Barcelona. However, my lucky star went dim when the government decided to close the park in which the observatory is located. The weather is particularly dry and hot and they’re shutting down places that can be seen as fire hazards. With the huge disasters happening around the world and specifically in the Mediterranean, it’s a sensible choice. All it takes is one idiot with a cigarette butt.

While this is a rare occurrence in which I actually think the government did something smart, it really fucks up my plans to see the Perseids. But I decide to not give up. In the end, watching stars is easy. I don’t need any fancy equipment. Just a — somewhat working — pair of eyes and a place with little or no light pollution. This last one is hard to come by in Barcelona. To find a place with no light pollution, one must go far from the cities, in remote, unpopulated areas. And what area is more remote and unpopulated than a desert!?!

Quick Geography lesson — the Spanish desert

For all the foreigners out there, this may come as a shock, but Spain is more than beaches, paella, sangria, bullfighting, Messi, C. Ronaldo, and flamenco. Much more. Each region has its own distinct culture and flavor, and the country supports all types of terrain, mountains, rivers, lakes, fields, deltas. And a desert. The Monegros. Located in the community of Aragon, just on the other side of the border with Catalunya. This is it. This is where I will see the Perseids. It should be safe. There’s no fire hazard. One can’t set a desert on fire. Important note: this *is not* a challenge.

This is it. This is where I will see the Perseids.

The only problem is that it’s “a bit” further than I expected. About two and a half hours ride from Barcelona. No way I can make it back home tonight. If I go, I must sleep there. I google for some camping. There aren’t that many, but I find one that’s in a small village, far from everything else. I doubt they have big sources of light pollution there. It’s either this or wait for another year!

I’m going all in! I strap my tent to my motorcycle and away I go. What’s the worse that could happen!?!

Aside from a couple of “domingueros” that couldn’t keep their lane, the ride there is uneventful. I arrive in the nick of time, just as the camping is about to close. My plan is to check-in, set up the tent, and then go for a ride in the desert to see the star. The lady at the reception convinces me it’s a bad idea: there’s no light, the roads are shitty and often unpaved, and a lot of areas lack cellphone coverage. She does have a point. Instead, she suggests walking to a nearby hill with a church that offers a good vantage point to see the stars.

Step into the dark

After setting up my tent, I start walking towards the church. It feels weird. I am not used to having so little light. I use my phone as a flashlight, pointing it at the ground to see where I’m going. I can’t distinguish anything outside its beam. I walk slowly, focusing on each step. The road is twisty and covered in gravel. As I move away from the camp, the light becomes dimmer and dimmer. I keep walking. It’s quiet. I can hear my every step. My phone‘s flashlight is just not powerful enough anymore. I can barely see where my next step will land.

Something moves in the bushes to my left. Fuuuuck me! My heart rate shoots up to 200 beats per second. A wave of cold sweat covers my body. I try to shine the light in the direction of the noise. Face my foe. Nothing there. Probably it was some rabbit that ran away. I need to be more careful. More aware of my surroundings. I can’t get scared like that again. I only brought one pair of pants.

I try to calm myself down. With logic. There’s no animal living in the Monegros desert that can fit me into its belly. Or mouth. Given my size, it’s probably the other way around. Plus, my kevlar-plated motorcycling gear is built to withstand extreme stress. No way a fox or rabbit on amphetamines can bite through it. And I’m also “armed” with my tripod: 1.5 meters long, made of resistant metal, and with pointy tips. Literally, I have nothing to fear! I am the apex predator of the desert. Small rodents, beware!

I am the apex predator of the desert. Small rodents, beware!

My eyes are slowly adjusting to the darkness. I can see clearly where before there was nothing. I look up at the sky. It’s amazing. I have never seen so many stars. I’m fascinated. I keep walking while looking up. All the critters of the desert can’t scare me now. I can’t recognize any star formation. Interstellar dust shines in between the stars. It’s what named the galaxy. The Milky Way. That must be one of the spiral arms. Gas, dust, and small particles spanning over tens of light-years reflect the light of their nearby suns. Probably some don’t even exist anymore.

I know our Solar System is located in one of the outer arms of the galaxy, but I don’t know whether I’m looking towards the center of the galaxy or outwards. Or if this changes while we move through space. Or if we can even tell the difference with the naked eye. There! A shooting star! First time I see one in my life.

I have been walking for minutes now and my eyes are well adapted to the darkness. I was just looking up all the time. I look around to get a better grasp of my surroundings. I turn around and I see the church. Holy shit, it’s creepy as fuck. Am I still the apex predator? Does the kevlar still help!? I just hope there’s no cemetery around. Meh! Whatever! I am looking at the sky again. The spectacle is fascinating.

Take the picture

I want to take some pictures. I know that my phone is useless in these circumstances and I brought my D5100 to take some long exposures. I set it up on the tripod. I need to configure it up for the picture. I know the theory: maximum aperture, long exposure time, set up the correct ISO value. I haven't used the camera in years and I am clumsy. I don’t know which button does what. I try to find my way around, but the camera flashes a message that the battery is about to die. The system goes into power-saving mode and displays a grid.

This must be the ugliest picture I took in a long while…

I hate this crap! I start looking for my spare battery, but I don’t have it with me. Testament to my planning skills. Aaaaaa. Should I curse this close to a church? I just take out the phone and try to snap a picture. This must be the ugliest picture I took in a long while…

Tears and wishes

A car approaches from the village. With high beams engaged. After getting used to the darkness, they’re burning a hole in my retinas. I look away and move out of its path. The driver pulls over next to me and asks me if I have seen a lot of shooting stars. I answer a couple. “No llore mucho San Lorenzo” he answers, says goodbye, and drives away.

“No llore mucho San Lorenzo

It’s funny how the different cultures see the same event. Here the Perseids are the called the tears of Saint Lawrence (Lágrimas de San Lorenzo / Llàgrimes de Sant Llorenç). I’m not sure what Saint Lawrence did, but I assume something sad must have happened to him. Other cultures see shooting stars as good omens, granting wishes to those who see them. I guess it all depends on the mood: if you’re sad, you see tears. If you’re happy, you see the opportunity for a wish.

What should I wish for!?! I find a rock and I lay down on it. Another shooting star. This was really big, visible for a couple of seconds. I try to think how big the fragment must have been to burn for that long. I literally don’t have any knowledge on how to do that. I don’t know anything about the density of the atmosphere, the entry velocity of the meteor, or its composition. And I forgot to make the wish. Is there a limit you have to make a wish after seeing a shooting star!?!

I there a limit you have to make a wish after seeing a shooting star!?!

What should I wish for? Money? Health? Love? Bitcoin? A KTM 1290 Super Adventure S? Neah, I can just buy that. I should “ask” for the money. I am getting tired. I should go back to camp and get some sleep. I do an inventory of the tasks that I need to do before crashing to bed: quick shower, brush my teeth. Hmmm…teeth. What’s better: to wish on a shooting star or the Tooth Fairy? I really need to get some sleep.

I stand up and start walking. I am about 10 minutes away from the camping. I drag my feet. My motorcycle boots weigh more than 1 kilo each. But now it feels like 50. I just want to reach the camping and get them off. That’s it. Teleportation. I’m going to wish for teleportation…

Trust me, I used to be an engineer!