One Awe-full Night
Winner, Crow Writing Contest, 2021
By Esperanza Ries, University of Arizona
Esperanza Ries is studying Studio Art at the University of Arizona. She is emphasizing in Illustration with hopes to one day work for Pixar. When Esperanza is not creating art, she enjoys writing, stargazing, and watching Disney movies. She also spends her time playing with her dog, Honey, and her cat, Finn.
What seemed like a harmless trip to the observatory turned into something that would change my life. My friend from Southern Arizona, Geovanna, was staying with me for the week, and we had several exciting activities planned. That June evening, we would be faced with unexpected terror and several moments of awe-inspiring wonder. Little did I realize what would be birthed that night.
It was the second week of June 2019, and Geovanna and I had spent several months planning for the week she would spend with me. Even though she only lived an hour away, close to Nogales, we would only see each other a couple times a year. For our week together, we had planned a few small activities like baking bread and desserts from scratch, going to the spa, visiting our other friends, and watching Disney movies in a pillow fort. The trip to Kitt Peak would be our big adventure for the week.
I slid my way into the driver’s seat of my little black Volvo, closing the door beside me. “Are you ready for this?” I said to my smiling friend sitting on the passenger side.
“I’m ready,” she replied.
I buckled my seatbelt then looked behind me as I slowly backed out of the driveway. Once out of the driveway, I squinted at the road ahead of me. “Only an hour and a half of driving until we will be staring at stars and planets through a telescope”, I thought to myself. The drive out of town was uneventful; the traffic was light which made the drive more enjoyable. It was slightly humid, and the clouds gathered in small clusters to drop rain in an unpredictable manner. The farther we drove away from town, the cloudier the sky seemed to be. The sky was a dim gray with some wispy clouds floating over the open plains. One of my favorite things to do is watching the shadows on the ground that the clouds overhead cast. If I had not been driving, I would have spent the whole car ride watching the shadows.
I turned down the volume of Josh Groban playing through the stereo, as I felt a bit of worry rise in me. I drove under what looked like storm clouds and muttered to Geo, “I really hope it doesn’t rain. It would suck to drive all this way then to just go home because of a little rain.”
She nodded in reply and made a comment about the weather. Fortunately for us, the storm clouds disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Before long, I caught a glimpse of the observatory dome reflecting the sun’s rays. I felt a rush of excitement and nervousness course through me as I drove closer to the base of the mountain. This would be my first time driving up a mountain. Stories of people’s cars breaking down on mountains or people driving off cliffs filled my mind. To brush away the fears, I reminded myself that those occurrences are unlikely. I took a final quick glance up the towering mountain before starting my ascent. I took a deep breath and gripped my steering wheel tighter. In one last attempt to calm my fears, I thought to myself, “I can do this. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen?” Little did I know that my unspoken fears would come true before my eyes.
I cautiously drove my car up the worn-out asphalt of the winding mountain road. I became a little more confident after each turn. I began to loosen my grip and proudly announced, “This isn’t so bad. I thought the mountain would be a lot steeper. I don’t know why I was so worried.”
Geo laughed and replied, “Yeah, this is a piece of cake.”
We continued our ascent to the peak of the mountain. After ten to fifteen minutes of twists and turns had passed, I took another glance at the GPS. I announced, “Almost there, just five more minutes.” I felt the car pause and jerk back for just a millisecond; I wondered if Geo felt it as well. I had felt it before while we were going up hills, but they were less noticeable. I remembered a piece of advice my mom had told me years ago about turning off the A/C when driving up a mountain. I turned off the A/C as inconspicuously as I could since I did not want to worry Geo. Thankfully for me, she did not notice. We came around a bend and made our way up a steep hill. I felt the car take another pause. “Five more minutes,” I repeated to myself in my head. I could finally see where the incline leveled out. I took a sigh of relief and leaned back in my seat. Suddenly high-pitched beeping and flashing warning lights destroyed my peace. My eyes darted around my dashboard as I tried to find the source of the commotion. Before I could read the warning message flashing behind the steering wheel, I felt the car stop and start to roll backwards. We rolled backwards a couple of feet before I thought to put my foot on the brake.
“Why are we going backwards? Did you put the car in reverse? Just put the car in drive and go forward.” Geovanna questioned.
“I didn’t. The car was in drive and the car just stopped. We are stuck.”
“No, we’re not. Stop messing with me. Just put the car in drive and go.” The panic in her tone increased with every word.
I explained that I am not trying to mess with her and that we are in fact stuck on the mountain. I put on the parking brake and finally looked at the warning message screaming for my attention. It read: “Car cannot accelerate. Turn the engine off.” I obeyed and shut my engine off. I restarted the car in hope that everything would be gone, and I could just forget about the little incident. The beeping and blinking resumed as if I had done nothing. I shut the engine off and restarted it for a second time – still nothing. I turned the car off for the third time and leaned back in defeat.
“What do we do?” A quiet and panicked voice came from the passenger seat.
I frantically searched my brain for an answer. Reluctantly I suggested, “We could try pushing the car to the top. I see a lookout at the top of the hill.”
Before I could think of an alternative suggestion, Geo climbed out of the car and made her way to the back. I glanced through the rear-view mirror at the thin framed face peering back at me through the window.
“This will never work,” I muttered as I tried to imagine how one small teenage girl was going to miraculously push a car plus a driver up a steep mountain.
She gave me a thumbs up to signify she was ready. I released the parking brake and very cautiously removed my foot off the brake pedal. The car began to roll back, and I watched her struggle for no longer than a second before putting my foot back on the brake. She climbed back in the car, and we stared at each other for a moment. I had no ideas other than to call my mom who was blissfully unaware at home an hour and a half away. I pulled out my phone and dialed her number. My hand shook as I raised the phone to my ear. She did not pick up, and so I tried again. I felt my heart sink deeper into my stomach at each unanswered ring. Finally, a cheerful voice answered the phone. Her voice shifted to sheer panic as I explained the predicament we found ourselves in. I asked her what we should do, but before I could get an answer – the call was dropped. I looked at my phone and noticed that I was out of range of service. With not enough strength to push the car and no means of communication with the outside world, we were completely helpless.
A glimmer of hope pierced the dark cloud around us. I saw a car coming up the hill behind us. The car paused behind us for a moment then drove around us to continue up the hill. I watched them pass and instantly regretted not waving them down for help. Then to my surprise, they stopped and a thumbs up stuck out the driver’s window. I was not sure how to reply so I stuck my hand out the window and frantically waved for them to come back.
A few moments later they were next to us on the opposite side of the road. We explained everything that happened to the group of women in the other vehicle. One offered to drive ahead and alert the observatory, while another offered to look at my car. She got out of the car and walked over to my door. She expressed that she does not know how to work with cars, but she would show us how to try accelerating. I intently listened to her instructions and restarted the car, lifted the parking brake, then placed my foot on the gas while my other foot was on the brake. My heart skipped a beat as I heard my engine trying to accelerate. I slowly took my foot off the brake and pressed on the gas harder. We were moving, but this time it was forward instead of backwards. I was overwhelmed with joy and relief.
We cautiously finished the five-minute journey to the top of the mountain. Our rescuers faithfully followed behind us in case my car acted up again. Parking the car in the parking lot was one of the most relieving feelings I had had in a long time. We were finally safe. Geo and I repeatedly thanked our saviors before checking in at the observatory’s visitor center. After checking in, we walked around the gift shop to take our minds off what just happened. Then it hit me, my mom is probably on her way to the mountain and had no idea that we were okay. I remembered that my phone had no service, so I talked to the lady at the desk and asked if we can use the phone. She stated that it was for emergency purposes only. As I briefly explained what happened, she reacted in shock and handed me the phone.
I dialed my mom’s number but expected her not to answer because of the unknown number. Thankfully, she answered. Even though I tried to alleviate her fears and assure her that we were safe, I could still hear the worry in her voice. We discussed where she was and what to do next. Although I wanted to feel the safety of her arms wrapped around me, I thought it would be best if we continued with the tour and met her at the base of the mountain when we were done. I felt bad for having her drive all the way to the mountain only to arrive at the base then have to go back and make the trip three hours later. I said one more “I love you” and then hung up the phone. Geo and I made our way outside to get some fresh air and calm ourselves down so we could enjoy the rest of the tour.
It took us at least half an hour to calm ourselves down to the point where we were no longer visibly shaking. By the time we forced ourselves to finish the dinner they provided, the color had returned to our faces. After everyone finished eating, we followed the tour guide on a small hike up a steep hill to look at the upcoming sunset. We all listened to the guide talk about the many observatories speckled across the mountain while we waited for the sun to go down. The sky was a light baby blue that blended into a rich array of crimson and orange tones mixed with purple hues the closer you looked to the horizon. The silhouettes of the surrounding mountain ranges framed the setting sun.
The deeper the sun sank, the deeper orange the clouds above turned. It looked like Bob Ross himself painted the scene from heaven. The sheer beauty of the sunset alleviated any lingering negative feelings from earlier. After the sun completely sank below the mountains, we were enveloped in a blanket of complete darkness. Even though the sunset was gorgeous, it was nothing compared to the wonders that would appear after dark.
We used our red-light flashlights to somewhat illuminate our path as we returned to the visitor center. We would all be assigned into two groups that would switch between using the telescope and stargazing with binoculars. Geovanna and I were in the group to use the telescope first. I had used a telescope before during a trip to Kitt Peak when I was about ten. I remembered seeing different planets and stars back then and I could not wait to find out what I would see that day. Our group made a single file line up the rickety stairs to the observatory beside the visitor center.
We took our seats at the curved bench in the back of the dome. The guide sat next to the telescope by a specialized computer that told the telescope where to look. After explaining the basic etiquette of the telescope and the dome, he played some sci-fi sounding music to give the experience some ambience. He announced that the first sight would be a star. He gave some facts about the star while he typed the directions into the computer. A sudden clank and machine grinding sound pierced my left ear. He had warned that when the dome opening moves positions, it will be very loud. I had forgotten his warning, and the sound caught me off guard. I was relieved when the dome was in position, and the noise stopped. We each took turns looking at the blurry, somewhat blue star through the telescope. It was interesting to see the star, but I wanted to see a planet. We looked at a couple other stars before we got to the big and interesting sights. It was hard to contain my joy when he announced that Jupiter was going to be next on the list.
I had seen Saturn on my last trip, and I remembered it looking exactly like someone just stuck a sticker from a children’s book on a black piece of paper. I wondered if Jupiter would look similar. The guide aligned the telescope and proceeded to explain facts while everyone took turns viewing. According to him, on that night Jupiter would be the closest to the Earth it would be for several years. The different expressions of amazement from each person piqued my curiosity even more.
When it was my turn, I rose from my seat and made my way to the telescope in the middle of the room. I shut one eye and leaned the other into the cold rubber eyepiece. It was hard to make out Jupiter; it was a blurry ball with a couple faded stripes going across it. Our guide warned us that Jupiter was going to be a little blurry and the famous red spot would not be visible tonight. I was a little disappointed that it was not as clear as Saturn had been, but we could see four of Jupiter’s moons. All four moons, with two on each side of Jupiter lined up to make an almost straight line. It was a nice surprise, and it reminded me of a couple movies where the villains waited for the stars to align before performing their evil plan. I thought about letting out an evil laugh but quickly dismissed the idea because it would have confused and possibly startled the other strangers in the dome. I returned to my seat and awaited the next astronomical sight. The guide saved the best for last, mainly for effect but also because it would be the brightest and would ruin our eyes’ adjustment to the dark.
The most exciting wonder for the night would be the moon. I was ten times more excited to see the moon than any other thing that night. I did not know what to expect. As the anticipation built up, several questions whirled around my head. “Would I be able to see the American flag? Would it be a blurry ball like Jupiter? Would it be disappointing or more amazing than I could ever imagine?” While the guide was examining the telescope to make sure you could see the moon, he exclaimed about how bright the moon was.
He loudly announced “Wow! The moon is bright!” about another four or five times while he aligned the telescope.
A funny idea popped in my head while I watched him. I mustered up all the courage I had to ask him a question.
“I have a very important question.”
“Oh sure, what’s up?” he replied.
“Is the moon bright?”
The dome erupted with laughter. I wondered if the group stargazing outside could hear us laughing. I felt a little proud of myself for speaking up and making everyone laugh. The joke briefly distracted me from the built-up anticipation of seeing the moon. I did not mind being the last person on the other things, but not for the moon. I waited as each person gasped and made different exclamations. Finally, the moment I had been waiting for, it was my turn. I lined up to the eyepiece and pressed my eye against it for the last time that night. The guide did not lie, the moon was very bright. It was so clear, it looked like I was watching a sci-fi movie on a HD television. I only saw a small corner of the moon, but it was beyond amazing. I could see the curvature of the moon against the empty space behind it. The craters looked like someone got carried away with stamping a cookie cutter across the moon’s surface. The scattered dark gray splotches mimicked a bruised banana. I could almost feel the texture of the moon as I imagined running my hand across the surface. I looked, but I did not see the American flag. How was this the same moon that I see every night? The moon I see every night looked like a white blotch compared to the enormous beauty before my eyes. I never would have imagined how detailed the moon really was. I could have stared at the moon for hours. I could feel a new appreciation for space stirring in me. I wondered what other astronomical sights I could see this clearly, but before I knew it, my time was up, and I had to trade the telescope for a pair of binoculars.
My eyes slowly adjusted back to the darkness as we made our way back down the rickety steps. I followed the group inside the visitor center to grab a pair of binoculars. My friend and I met the group out on the patio to begin stargazing. The guide pointed out different constellations with his laser pointer. My neck got tired of craning so far back to look at the stars, so I decided to lie on the ground. Something about lying on the ground made the experience more relaxing. Geovanna joined me on the ground to admire the sparkly speckles scattered across the sky. It was dark enough that we could see a faint outline of the Milky Way. The Milky Way could easily be mistaken for a thin wispy cloud across the sky. The stars resembled glitter that was meticulously sprinkled on a black sheet of paper. We laid in complete silence as we took in every second of the serenity coming from being enveloped in darkness with an array of glistening stars above our heads. As we lay there, I felt like a tiny speck among the millions of twinkling stars. Instead of feeling uneasy, I felt comfortable with the vastness of space.
Stargazing was the perfect end to the tour. All the stress and fear I felt a couple hours prior was non-existent. I was too focused on the beauty and majesty of space to think about my car breaking down. As we headed back down the mountain, all we could talk about was how amazing the tour had been. We could not wait to start planning our next trip to Kitt Peak, in a different car, of course. The joy I had from seeing space was doubled when I saw my mom’s car at the base of the mountain. I ran out of my car to embrace her tightly. I could not wait to share with her the story of the terrifying moment in the car but also the unexpected discovery of my love for astronomy.
I had liked looking at stars prior to the tour, but I did not expect the tour to deepen my love for astronomy. The weeks following that night, I realized that I craved more. I longed to look at the moon through the telescope again. I wanted to see what else I could see in space that was hidden to the naked eye. I wanted to feel small compared to the curtain of stars all around me. My head was racing with different questions about astronomy. I needed to satisfy my longing to look at the stars, so instead of spending a lot of money to visit the observatory all the time, I invested in my own pair of high-powered binoculars and a small telescope. I am currently saving to purchase a larger and stronger telescope. While Geovanna loved the tour and had a great time, I do not think it impacted her as much as it impacted me. I never could have imagined how much one tour would affect my love for astronomy. Although the car incident was terrifying, I am somewhat grateful for it. I often wonder if the adrenaline from the car incident heightened my senses and better prepared my mind to accept the wonders of space.
Ewers, Dr. Keesha. Girl-holding-a-heart-shape-with-telescope-moon-and-stars-my- astronomy-picture-id909914854. Date unknown. Google. Accessed 5 October 2020. <https://www.drkeesha.com/is-winter-solstice-impacting-your-mood-too/girl-holding-a- heart-shape-with-telescope-moon-and-stars-my-astronomy-picture-id909914854/>
Copyright © 2021 Esperanza Ries. Published with permission.