Lisa Reutzel and Sandy Coleman

Sandy Coleman
Inspiration Piece

Starry Night
By Lisa Reutzel
Response

I still remember the first time I ever saw the stars.  I was twelve years old.  I know what you’re thinking.  How could someone possibly live for twelve entire years without ever seeing a single star?  Of course, I didn’t.  I had seen stars before, but not very many of them.  I grew up in the city, in the shadow of the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, a place where it is never truly dark.  Even in the middle of the night, the sky glows a ghastly black-yellow-orange.  The few stars I could see had always been viewed through the mist of a marine layer or a brown veil of smog.  There were stars in the L.A sky, but they paled in comparison to the glittering city, disappearing like background music, outshined by the neon lights of Hollywood and the presence of a whole lot of stars of an entirely different variety.

So, the first time I really saw the stars was at 6th grade camp.  I don’t know if they do 6th grade camp everywhere, and with recent budget cuts that have gutted education in my state, I’m not sure they do it here anymore, but back then it was a long-standing tradition in Southern California.  Once a year, the buses would arrive in front of our school early Monday morning and we would load our backpacks and sleeping bags into their great bellies, climb aboard, and be transported up to the mountains for a week of fresh air and pine trees.  We slept in cabins and spent our days doing such foreign activities as archery, campfire building, and outdoor cooking.  We took long hikes through the woods, exploring the narrow high country that separates the low California coastal plain from the vast expanse of hot, dry desert that stretches all the way to the Colorado Plateau, many of us, myself included, for the first time in our young lives.

I was raised by a single mother who had never been very adventurous when it came to outdoor activities.  The closest I’d ever come to camping was a sleepover with my girl-scout troop in the 4th grade in a 2-acre park separated from the city by a simple wooden fence and located less than a 5-minute walk from my house.  The closest we’d come to hiking was walking down the street in the afternoon to get an ice cream cone from Thrifty’s.  We could hear the cars zipping down Bellflower Boulevard all night long from the confines of our spider-riddled canvas tent.  To say I knew little about the great outdoors was a mild understatement.

I hated 6th grade camp almost from the moment I stepped off the bus.  It was the first time I’d really ever been away from home by myself for more than one night, and I didn’t want to go.  I was determined to hate it from the start, and I did.  I didn’t like my cabin, didn’t like the fact that the popular clique of girls in my class got to stay in one of the newer cabins with painted walls that resembled a hotel room, while I was stuck in little more than a shack, the ceiling hung with cobwebs.  I didn’t like the creaky bunk beds we had to sleep in, or the fact that my bunkmate was afflicted with sleep apnea and snored all night long.  I didn’t like the food at camp, especially the milk, which was rumored to have come from goats (a fabrication, I’m sure).  I didn’t like spending all day trudging through the woods, getting scratched by tree branches and chewed on by bugs I couldn’t even name.  I wanted nothing more than to go home, and I cried myself to sleep every night inside my sleeping bag.

After four days in the woods, I was tired, itchy, sore, sunburned, and oh so ready to go home.  Our last night of camp, we went on a night hike up to an open meadow above the cabins.  The path was dark and I’d never walked through the woods in the dark before.  Heck, before our arrival Monday, I’d never walked through the woods at all.  As we ascended up the steep hill, I kept my attention focused on the beam of light streaming from my flashlight, certain at any moment that I would slip on a patch of loose gravel, stumble, and plunge down the side of the steep cliff to my death.  It wasn’t until we were seated on the narrow wooden benches in the small amphitheater in the center of the clearing and instructed to turn off our flashlights that I finally noticed the stars.  In the sudden darkness, I tilted my head back as far as I could and stared up in surprise at a black sky filled with pinpricks of dancing white lights.  There wasn’t even a moon that night, just a billion stars winking from the vast expanse of a space I had once assumed was mostly empty.  I couldn’t believe it.  Where had all those stars come from?  Why had I never noticed them before?  The obvious fact that they had been there all along, hidden behind the haze of city lights I was accustomed to, seemed utterly unfathomable to me.  I stared and stared, barely listening to the camp counselor as she explained about red giants and white dwarfs and constellations and black holes.

We left camp the next day, and I sat with my nose pressed to the warm bus window, watching the pine trees slowly give way to scrub oak, then dried brown grass, then finally buildings.  I felt strangely melancholy as we descended swiftly back into the city.  I was happy to be going home, but I missed camp already.  I had been miserable the entire week, but now that I was leaving, I realized how much I was going to miss the smell of sap that had wafted from the pine trees every morning, the sound of woodpeckers chipping away at the cabin walls, butterflies flitting from flower to flower and deer grazing among the trees at dusk.  Most of all, I knew I would miss the stars, miss that universe of endless possibilities that had exploded in front of my eyes as the glow of dozens of flashlights had given way to a kind of brilliant darkness I had never before known.

By the time the buses pulled up to the curb in front of our school, I knew I would return to the mountains someday.  I could see them even now, above the roofs of the classrooms, beckoning to me, calling me back home.  I knew then that I wasn’t a city girl after all, knew in my heart that I belonged to the mountains and the trees and the howling coyotes, and especially that brilliant night sky that outshone every bright Hollywood sign I had ever seen a million times over.  I felt at peace.  Somehow, as I climbed down from the bus and into my mother’s waiting arms, I knew I would eventually find my way back.

That was almost thirty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten the way I felt when I first looked up and saw the night sky filled with stars.  These days, I take every chance I get to escape to the mountains.  I still love the smell of fresh pine needles after a rain.  I still marvel every time I see a deer grazing in a meadow.  I still get antsy and anxious when I stay away from nature for too long.  I still live in the city, but I’ve never felt as though I belong to the city.  It isn’t my home.  My home is that place I found on that long ago night, high above the city lights, staring up at a sky filled with countless stars.

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One Comment

  1. Cecilia Driscoll
    Posted September 28, 2012 at 7:14 am | #

    Lisa and Sandy…what a beautiful artwork and essay! Thought-provoking, evoking of wonder. Thank you!

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