The Astronauts

“The moment I jumped off of it was the moment I touched down.”

– Alanis Morissette

——–—————-

It was 1 a.m. on a starry night in Nebraska and we were speeding down an empty interstate.  Miles Davis played on the stereo and the dashboard glowed amber.  I opened the windows a few inches to stay alert and the scent of fresh earth filled the car.

Michael and I had been driving west for 24 straight hours, alternating shifts behind the wheel of my Suburu.  We’d traveled half way across the country and had just decided to take our first real break. Our senses were dazed from the blur and vibration of 1400 consecutive highway miles. Pausing for a few hours of rest in the still of the night would be heaven.

I took the next exit.  The sign read “North Platte”.  As we left the highway and followed the curve of the ramp, we saw nothing but darkness. The exit deposited us onto an empty road in the middle of nowhere.  I drove a mile or two and turned into a small gravel area at the edge of an enormous field.

I switched off the engine and we were suddenly surrounded by the most exquisite silence.  Michael let out a deep sigh.  I rubbed my eyes.   We sat there for a moment in the stillness like two astronauts who had just landed on the moon after days of space travel.

The real treat, though, was emerging from the vehicle.  We climbed out into the night and stretched like cats.  All I could see was one enormous cottonwood tree and endless acres of flat fields.

Then I looked up.  It was a moonless night and the sky was spectacular.  This was my first time west of the Mississippi and I felt like I was viewing the heavens for the first time.  Without light pollution, we could see ten times as many stars as usual and they extended all the way down to the horizon.  The Milky Way was positively brilliant.  It looked like the edge of a luminous frisbee floating gently towards us. (Catch!).

Michael popped the trunk, grabbed his sleeping bag and stretched out on top of it beneath the tree.  It was a warm evening. A light breeze was gently rustling the leaves on that magnificent cottonwood. I leaned against the car, exhaled long and slow and gazed up.  A meteor sped silently across the sky and disappeared. Summer insects buzzed. My body was still vibrating from all those miles on the road but my mind now felt surprisingly clear.

 

It was the summer of 1992. I was 23 years old and nearly penniless.  My future was utterly uncertain. I’d spent much of the drive across America turning my predicament over and over in my mind.  What would become of me? And what would people *think* of what would become of me?  No matter how far or fast we drove, my troubles had kept pace and churned in my gut.  In the absence of faith, worries grow like weeds.

Something had shifted in me though the moment we arrived in North Platte, Nebraska and stepped out into the night. The sea of stars had left me positively awestruck. Thoughts of the past and future were momentarily washed away and I was astonished to discover the gifts that remained.  They were all around me:  a chorus of crickets, the arc of shooting stars, the fragrance of fertile ground and the cool of the breeze on my neck. The ordinary had become extraordinary simply because I was finally paying attention.

I looked up at the night sky stretched out over me like a familiar blanket.  For the first time in a long time, I felt grateful. I may have been standing in the middle of nowhere, but it somehow felt like home.

 

Apollo 15 Astronaut James P. Irwin once described the experience of standing on the moon like this: “I felt like I was an alien as I traveled through space, but when I got on the moon, I didn’t feel that – at all. I felt at home there even though earth was a long ways away. We could see it directly above, about the size of a marble… I felt something [on the moon] other than just what we can visually sense – – a spiritual presence was there… I realized that Dave Scott and I were the only two on this vast planet – – another world. We were the only two there.  We felt an unseen love.  We were not alone.”

 

After a few minutes of stargazing, I eased my exhausted body into the passenger seat, rolled down all four windows and fully reclined. I listened to the wind rustling the leaves as I drifted off into a deep sleep.

A short while later, I dreamed the clearest dream I have ever had. It seemed as real as any “awake” experience. I dreamed that I was kneeling on the ground in the grass in front of the car there in North Platte staring straight up to the stars. And this incredibly bright light, the most powerful light I’ve ever seen, began to fill the sky. Eventually it completely took over my field of vision. I remember quite vividly that it was the brightest light I have ever seen but it did not hurt my eyes and it filled me with the most intense joy – so intense that I began shaking and weeping with the deepest happiness I have ever known.

I felt absolutely certain at that moment that everything was connected and perfect and everything was O.K. and would be O.K. It was faith as a knowing rather than faith as a hoping. I felt supremely patient. I felt whole.

I continued to stare up into the sky, weep with joy and tremble for what seemed like five minutes or more. My whole body was shaking.

And then, after more than five minutes of this revelatory dream, I suddenly woke up.  I was back in the car, but I was still shaking and weeping just as I had been in my dream.  I sat up and blinked.  It was completely dark except for the starlight.  I laid back down and gazed out the open window.  The branches of the big cottonwood were slowly bowing in the breeze.

I wiped the tears from my face and looked up at the stars. Each one of them was a sun warming its own corner of space. From this distance though, they were just tiny jewels in the clear night sky.

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