Rules of the Northern Lights
Mary Ann Thomas
I squat on the dirt road and widen my stance to avoid the inevitable splash of pee on hard earth. When I have a solid stream running, I look up. A beam of light, like a spotlight directing aimless crowds to the next hottest award show in Hollywood, shines straight out of the dark horizon.
I stand. As I zip my jeans, I yell, “Hey Courtney!” No answer. “Hey guys! Do the Northern Lights look like a spotlight shining into the sky? Like an event spotlight?”
“What?” I hear from the group at large.
I run back to the edge of our disheveled campsite in the dark, repeating the question. As soon as I say spotlight, I hear the scurry of chairs knocked over and the splash of spilled beer.
“Sometimes!” Courtney responds. Her darkened nighttime figure hurries over to me. She grabs my arm and pulls me back into the road, her curly auburn hair swishing halfway down her back. A full-teeth smile shines through the darkness.
We pause, silent, back in the middle of the road.
I think it’s a false alarm. Courtney and I stand with our arms locked, staring at the sky. I don’t want to point to what I think is the abnormal streak of color because I don’t trust myself. I’ve never seen the Northern Lights. I don’t know what they could look like.
Leo joins us and immediately yells, “That’s it! That’s the Northern Lights!” I turn to Courtney and smile, asking with my eyes. She nods.
“Whaaaaaat! That’s them? It’s happening, guys!” I yell and hop up and down. Julie joins us and looks up; her eyes connect to the streak and she jumps wildly in the air.
Courtney, the ever-rational leader of these of travel nurses gone wild at the edge of Alaska, calms herself. “But guys — we can do better! There are all these trees here blocking our view; let’s go to the glacier!”
We pile into her car. Drunk and high, she takes us to a wide, circular parking lot at the edge of a lake, where we can see the glimmering white ice of the Valdez Glacier shining between two ridges of mountain on either side, where a moonless night allows the green streaks of light to shine on the low, open sky. As soon as the car stops, we pour out with our accessories—a bottle of Maker’s Mark and a freshly packed bowl, a DSLR camera and a tripod, a hat, and pair of gloves for each of us on this chilly August night.
The green streaks sit still momentarily, and I think, maybe it’s not real. Maybe these are clouds. The green is so barely green, so faint, just a bare streak of color in the sky.
“Are you sure it’s them?” I ask.
“Just watch,” Courtney replies.
The first rule of watching the Northern Lights, I learn, is you don’t question the Northern Lights.
I stare. After moments of stillness, suddenly my eyes are trying to capture light, motion, quickly streaking across the sky, movements that do not and cannot make sense in the framework of science and reason that I know. The very air seems to move, the sky is unstable as the colors ball up in density and are tossed from ridge to ridge, a mountain giant’s game of softball.
“There’s pink!” Courtney says. I look closer, I try to focus my eyes and there — there! There’s pink! At the edge of these wild movements, a rim of pink hides behind in the stillness. The wave of motion slows, and we’re back to streaks. But now we can see the pink, pale against depths of black.
I sit on the hood of the car. Julie passes me the bowl.
“I don’t get it,” I say to her. She puts an arm around me. In my overwhelmed state, I don’t know what to think anymore.
“I don’t either! But I don’t have to. It’s the Northern Lights. It’s magic,” she says. We turn our gaze towards the sky.
It’s supposed to be a good night for lights! a text from Leo reads. Meet at our house at 8.
In the last few weeks, I’ve learned that people try to predict when the shows will happen. There’s an app for it. It rates how good of a show will appear, based on magnetics and ions and, well, a whole bunch of science that still makes no sense to me. It doesn’t take into account, though, cloud cover, or the radiance of the moon and its ability to wash out the colors, or, in summer, perpetual daylight that shields the lights from the human eye.
When I get to their house, we crack beers and consider where to go. Flattop, a mountain at the edge of Anchorage where a parking lot faces the city and gives an unimpeded view towards the West and North, is the quick-n-dirty option. It’s only twenty minutes away, but because of how close it is, the light pollution doesn’t allow for true darkness. Courtney mentions Eklutna, a spot I’ve never been to, the reservoir where Anchorage gets most of its drinking water and electricity. Eklutna requires committing to an hour drive and camping. It’s September now, and freezing at night. We’ll have to build a fire to stay warm, we’ll have to pitch tents and bring all the sleeping bags and blankets we have. But we will have darkness.
I learn the second rule of the Northern Lights. To chase lights, you must chase darkness first.
As we crowd the roaring fire that Leo built in only a few minutes, I decide to repeat my tactic. I go to the middle of the road and squat, listen to the rush of pee hitting the dirt and, this time, watch steam rise as the warmth of my body makes contact with the Alaskan cold. I look up. Hmm.
“Hey Courtney?” I ask this time — I don’t yell. There’s no spotlight.
“Do you see it?!” she replies.
“No, I don’t think so, I don’t know. C’mere!” In a minute, she’s standing next to me.
“So, what’s with the back glow? It kind of looks green, but do you think it’s just light pollution?”
“Oh no. There’s no light pollution out here. This is one of the darkest places you can get to this close to the city.” She stares up. “But I don’t know what that is. It’s a glow. And there’s no city glow here.”
“So, backlit mountains mean something? Like, the beginning of a show? Or maybe it’s just not that good of a night for them?”
The third rule of the Northern Lights: mountains in Alaska must be backlit for a reason. Ask yourself: did the sun set recently in that direction; could it just be the faint glow of the earth turning away from its source of light and life? Or is there a city behind those mountains? Is a full moon rising over there? Because if there is no explanation for light in the sky, the answer is that which cannot be explained: the magnetics and ions and science creating the Northern Lights.
For the rest of the fall, I spend my time chasing lights. I don’t bother checking the report, or the weather, or the moon. I create a tradition with myself. Anytime I’m out after dark — at the bar, at a friend’s house, getting home late from an adventure — I head to Flattop with an extra jacket and park the car. Usually, a few obsessed individuals have their tripods set up, waiting, watching, the remote shutter poised for action; a few couples lie out on the sidewalk, blankets sheltering them from the cold. I usually jump out briefly, remember how damn cold Flattop is in the fall with wind chill, take a swig of bourbon, and then get back in the car, just to drive down the switchbacks of the mountain in the dark.
Despite how often I head to Flattop, I never see them when I try. The fourth rule of the Northern Lights: if you chase the elusive colors, they hide.
On my last free week in Alaska, I plan a trip to hot springs in the north. The far, far north — Fairbanks, a day’s drive from Anchorage, past Denali National Park and into Interior Alaska. Jeremy is visiting for ten days and wants only two things: hot springs and Northern Lights. I promise him that I can’t promise him anything when it comes to the lights, but we rent a public-use cabin out on a road far from the city. During the daytime, we soak in the hot springs. We return to the cabin, chop firewood, and build two fires: one inside the cabin on the woodstove, so recklessly hot it brings the inside temperature to 92 degrees, and one outside the cabin, to heat our butts as we stare out at the river and up at the sky.
When night hits and the colors start, we aren’t totally surprised. I pull out my camera to get a few shots before the cold freezes the battery and I can’t turn it on anymore. It’s early, and only streaks illuminate the sky. We stay out there, though, eyes peeled as it transitions. Beams of green shoot out from the river, wildly dance up and overhead, swirl above us in circles, and shoot back down. Every time I stare at one spot, watching it dance and shake and move around, gyrating without inhibition, Jeremy calls out, “But look at that!” and I look over there, and the sky can’t stop moving. My eyes have too much to take in, in too many places across an endless sky overhead.
Each time it calms down, each time the movement stills for a moment, we rush inside, grab some hot chocolate, and try to heat ourselves from the inside out and the outside in. From the dining table in the cabin, we look out the window and see the green blaring, calling us back outside. Once warm, we run out and stare up: a swan! Overhead, its elongated neck stares down at us, shapes furiously created, instantaneously destroyed. A swan the size of the sky promises a show, promises us that any time we close our eyes she could disappear, any time we rush back into the cabin, she could dissolve.
For hours, we run in and out of the cabin, convincing ourselves it’s over, reminding ourselves it’s never over. The lights are always there; it’s only a matter of whether the human eye — and human devices, like cameras — can pick up the magic. Here, the fifth rule of the Northern Lights becomes clear. It runs in waves. The movement will stop and start, it’ll settle down and build back up. Like an acid trip, the intensity will change in intervals, sometimes unpredictably.
Almost a year later, I return to Alaska. It’s been a winter, a spring, and a summer since I’ve seen the glowing lights in the sky, and I don’t remember how to know if it’s them or not. With a group of travel nurses in the largest national park in the United States, darkness falls and we see wisps. Wisps of what, we don’t know. We walk out onto a footbridge, with a thunderous river beneath us crowding out our thoughts and voices. I look down into it, mesmerized by the violence in the water, its ability to alter and destroy anything in its path. When I look up, I realize particles that had been to the left of the sky are now on the right. No one saw it happening, but it’s a change — a fast change.
The sixth rule of the Northern Lights: ask yourself, if I close my eyes, or look away for a few minutes, has it changed? If it changes that fast, you know it’s them. Clouds don’t move like that, don’t run in wispy bands across the sky, they don’t move like they’re trying to trick your eyes or make you doubt your own memory or ruin your capacity to trust yourself like the Northern Lights do. Clouds don’t convince you that you can’t process information, but Northern Lights? The Northern Lights make it clear that you know nothing.
A month later, I return to that spot in the mountains, chasing lights with friends from the East Coast of the Lower 48. These friends have never seen them and I must convince them that I am to be trusted. I don’t know whether I’m to be trusted; I don’t know whether I believe my eyes when I’m trying to find the Northern Lights. We open the trunk of the car and sit on the back, tailgate style, watching the sky. I see the mountains get backlit and I try not to get excited. I watch slight movements appear and disappear, like the waves I’ve come to expect. I close my eyes and open them, and the shapes have changed, the light moving across the valley has shifted position. And whoosh! A ball of green flies across the sky, and we have dancing lights!
“Is that it? That’s really not what I expected, compared to the photos,” my East Coast roommate says.
“The photos capture things our naked eyes can’t see,” I explain. “Watch. Keep watching. Look for the dance. It’s way better than the photos.” I feel her rolling her eyes in the darkness, and I question whether I know what the hell I’m talking about.
I pull out my camera and fall back on the seventh rule.
When in true doubt, when your eyes can’t discern cloud cover, when the lights appear as a streak and you can’t remember if clouds are spotlights in the sky or usually more amorphous, or you don’t trust yourself to tell the difference, cameras. Cameras can reveal the truth. They can tell you if colors exist, they can reveal changes and waves that you’re too eager to believe are real by naked eye alone. So you take pictures and are, miraculously, validated. You start to believe your eyes, you start to believe your experiences, because you’ve found them to be valid before.
The Northern Lights, the magnetics and ions and science, can be explained in no layman’s terms. Only legends promising protection in the dead of winter can explain it adequately to meet the mysteries above us. The true lesson of the Northern Lights is to know that there is absolutely nothing I know and fully understand on this earth, not even, especially not, what I have seen.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Guest Writer for Panorama.
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