Looking Up?

(photo by Sonja Thomsen)

Sonja Thomsen, a photographer colleague/friend from Milwaukee is spending part of her January in Iceland to work on a project. Yesterday, she posted the photograph to the right on my Facebook wall. She took the photo “just north of Reykjavik pulled over on the side of Hwy 36.”

God damn, that is amazing.

Looking at that photo caused two things: (1) I felt a strong resolve to experience Aurora Borealis before leaving Duluth and (2) a few strong memories came to me, about the sky, Duluth, and the Northern Lights. You can find a few thoughts on those below.

My most vivid memory of the night sky is from 2004, when I was visiting Duluth for the first time. I still remember driving into the city on I-35, with a sweep of hills and harbor and lake. As I’ve learned over and over this month, Duluth had the most ostentatious vistas per capita in the world at the turn of the century. Or something like that.

There were a few very important reasons for the trip, particularly visiting my good friend Jamie and his family. As of this weekend, his family’s living room still has the same immediate familiarity to it, despite all that’s happened since then.

For the weekend, we drove to a cabin Up North belonging to a family friend of Jamie’s. Going Up North definitely felt like a big deal to me. We were in a small town whose name I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember (little help Jamie?). All I know is that we weren’t quite at the Boundary Waters.

We went on a long hike in the afternoon and spent the evening watching the Joseph Campbell/Bill Moyers interviews on a small TV. As rising sophomores at a liberal arts college, I think that’s exactly what we had to do. Eventually, we took a break from the screen and its heady conversation to look at the sky. It was like my first heirloom tomato.


An experience that I knew, but only a mealy, unfaithful version. I knew imitations of imitations, and the night sky Up There seemed to be the honest to goodness form. The Real McCoy. We stood hushed and wordless, looking at all the light.

Last night, I felt like the Northern Lights were definitely going to happen. In the morning, on the radio, I’d heard about the solar flare that’s creating perfect conditions all around the hemisphere. And aside from news of the mass ejections skimming along the Van Allen belts and burning up above our neck of the woods, a blog post from Astro Bob got me even more excited. That being said, Astro Bob seems to be a generally exciting guy. (Excited atoms, excited Adam?)

The sky was clear in the morning yesterday. I made plans to drive outside of the city. I was raised to love magic and Aurora Borealis felt like a sure thing for the evening.

My family was on a flight from Alaska to Seattle in the summer of 2003. There were a few very important reasons for the trip. We were in Alaska for about a week, mostly away from light pollution, so we were completely certain that we’d see the Aurora Borealis at some point before leaving.

We saw bald eagles and migrating salmon and cryptic graffiti and a stray beam of light that fought through the clouds and shined on Denali during an otherwise gloomy day. Just for a moment. We did not see the Northern Lights before leaving.

We did, however, see the Northern Lights when we were all getting back to the lower forty-eight before heading our separate ways. On our outbound plane, my Mom was the first to notice and we were soon huddled around inadequately small airplane windows, taking a few shabby pictures through streaked plastic before resigning to looking alone. The lights were green. And like the glacier blue I’d seen for the first time a few days before, it was a kind of green I didn’t know. We pressed together, hushed and wordless, looking at all the light.

Thought this tea might make me fit in around here a little bit better.

I felt ill last night, which is exact wrong way to have the month come to an end. The afternoon had brought clouds. I drank tea and ate Fisherman’s Friends and stalked around the apartment a little, hoping for the sky to clear. Maybe looking out the window and frowning is the opposite of a rain dance? It isn’t. Throughout the month, I haven’t experienced as much outdoors as I really should have, and seeing the Northern Lights seems like it could be the perfect remedy.

This morning, MPR seemed to talk about the solar flare and sensational Aurora Borealis about every five minutes, despite the fact that most of Minnesota hasn’t had a chance to see them. They gushed about the pictures they’d seen on the internet. TheRealMcCoy.com. MPR loves to tease.

I feel less sick today. Tonight is supposed to be cloudy again, but I’m still holding out hope that we’ll get a clear night in the next couple days.

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