Sunday, August 3, 2014

Nebraska Star Party: The Place

While some of you are familiar with the Nebraska Sandhills region, I want to include some details about the region to help friends who have never visited there understand what makes it special for both hosting a star party, and for feeding your soul.  

This map shows light pollution in the United States, ranging from the most polluted in white to the least polluted in black. It is difficult to find any dark areas in the eastern half of the US.  While light pollution is much less pronounced in the western half of the country, there are very few truly dark places (pictured in black vs. gray) left. (Once you've experienced the benefits of a dark region, it becomes clear why we should all be paying more attention to protecting dark places and working in our communities for outdoor lighting that cuts down on light pollution.) 

I've drawn a pink arrow near the center of the map to indicate the approximate location of the Nebraska Star Party.  Most of the dark oval near the tip of the arrow is over the Sandhills region of Nebraska, which sits over one of the country's most valuable water resources, the Ogallala Aquifer. There are very few roads in the region, and very few people as well. In fact, when I left NSP to travel to Kearney on Wednesday evening, I did not see another person or vehicle for well over an hour of driving.

The Nebraska Star Party is hosted in the most remote campground at Merritt Reservoir, which is next to Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, and 30 miles from the nearest town - in any direction.  And that town is Valentine, population approximately 2700. It would be difficult to find a darker place to host a star party that is not on a remote, unpopulated island out in the middle of the ocean. 

And it's that total darkness that makes the NSP so special.  I was told about 350 people registered to attend this year, and many traveled from across the country to experience the dark skies of the region.

On the left is the road leading into the NSP observation field and camping area.  You can see some of the tents in the distance. When I first came over this hill on my way into the campground, I was reminded of a scene in Dances with Wolves where Kevin Costner crests a hill to see the tribal encampment below.  Except NSP folks put a high premium on personal space. Be still my quiet, peaceful, personal-space-loving, heart.

While we were allowed to set up camp in any area that was mowed, most campsites in my area were at least 50 yards apart. (This would prove to be important for other reasons that will be addressed in the primitive camping post.)  Despite being so far apart, it was so quiet at the campground that I could hear my neighbors zip and unzip their tent flap from about 75 yards away. Hypothetically, if I had accidentally pressed the panic button on my car remote while scrambling to throw my sleeping bag and pillow into the Rogue during a sudden lightning storm Tuesday night, they might have heard that too. In theory.

For the record, I didn't intend to set up camp quite so far away from my neighbors. When scouting out a place to pitch my tent, I was looking for a flat space, which was a bit hard to come by among the hills. In the end, it was perfect. What more could a solo traveling introvert who wants to read and write in her journal during the day and study stars at night ask for?

Up next:  Primitive Camping. Or how Lynne had to carefully weigh the need for food or water against resulting visits to the pit toilet while picking cactus thorns out of her tennis shoes.

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