Last night, for the first time in all the years we've lived in the United States, we heard a cow moo.
A whole herd of cows grazed lazily on the patchy green and golden grass in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a fenced-in enclosure. On our side of the fence, apple tree branches hung heavy with the weight of the fruit.
We could see a line of cars ahead of us as we entered Virginia's Sky Meadow State Park, about an hour west of Washington, D.C. The parking lot was already full and cars were now beginning to line the gravelly path skirting a grassy mound on which a young boy and girl were tossing a football to each other.
Just beyond them, we could barely see the tops of the backs of chairs and a few heads. Counting our lucky stars that we had a couple of portable folding chairs stashed in the trunk of the car, we found a parking spot, walked up the mound, past the football-throwing kids, and came upon a large field.
An assortment of groups - families, friends, couples - sprawled on sheets spread out on the grass and sat on chairs in the lower part of the field where the ground was level. In the middle, about fifteen telescopes stood on the ground - some slim and long and others fat and long - their sights trained on the skies. Their owners bustled about, connecting wires, setting up chairs and ladders, firing up computers and good-naturedly talking to curious children and adults alike.
More people came, with children, pets, blankets, picnic hampers and flashlights. As the sun dipped low over the horizon, the breeze picked up and a lone star appeared in the center of the pale blue sky. The show had begun.
Sky Meadows State Park is host to a cooperative program series put together by the Smithsonian Albert Einstein Planetarium, NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab Solar System Ambassadors and the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. One moonless Saturday evening every month from April to November is reserved for this special event - a slide show presentation on a specific area of astronomy, a tour of the skies presented by a park official, topped off with telescope-hopping to take a peek at the skies.
As the last of the summer light faded out, more stars popped up in the huge inverted bowl above us - more stars than I had seen in a very long time. My son, his friend and I made our way to one of the telescopes, the kids' curiosity getting the better of their manners as they peeped into every part that looked even remotely like an eye-piece. The amateur astronomer to whom that telescope belonged guided the kids to the correct aperture and pointed them to that first star we'd seen that evening.
"Do you know what that is?"
"No, that's Jupiter."
"Jupiter? Wow! Can we see it through the telescope?"
Then a bit later, "Mom! I could see Jupiter with my naked eye!"
That set the flavor for the evening. Everything was coated in generous doses of excitement, the thrill of seeing something that had been only the stuff of books writ large on every one's faces. A fluffy band of cloud that stretched from one horizon into the other, we learned, was a band of the Milky Way.
The slide show presentation was educational and useful, drawing people into the evening's program and giving them pointers on what to look for later on in the skies. The volunteers of the Astronomy Club offered up their telescopes to long lines of grateful people, turning their telescopes at intervals to showcase new patches of sky. An occasional shooting star hurtling down the sky produced "oohs" and "aahs".
We wandered from one place to another - heads swiveling up to watch the skies and swiveling right back down to make sure we did not trip over anyone on the grass - trying to take in as much as we could. Then there were the people who picked a spot early in the evening and did not budge, their attention focused on the sky, just enjoying the giant, outdoor planetarium, their lasers pointing this way and that, calling out names of constellations, stars and planets.
Whatever you choose to do, at some point in the night, you are bound to revel in witnessing something way larger than yourself playing itself out in the skies - and develop a crick in your neck.
- Three more Astronomy nights are planned for this year at Sky Meadows: September 8 (7:30 pm to 11:00 pm), October 13 (6:30 pm to 10:00 pm) and November 10 (5 pm to 10:00 pm).
- The park charges an admission fee of $4 per car. The show itself is free.
- The park is located at 11012 Edmonds Lane in Delaplane, Virginia, about an hour west of Washington, DC (66 W towards Front Royal, Exit 23 to US 17 N, Left on Edmonds Lane).
- Carry food (the closest food source is McDonald's 10 miles away), portable folding chairs or sheets to lay on the grass, a flashlight, warm clothing, and a telescope if you have one.
- Sky Meadows' website has information about other activities offered there (hiking, camping).