Beautiful Skies Light Up Catskills Nights

27 May

“Do you know what weekend you are coming?” My sister asked, when I gave her the dates I planned to come to New York for my annual Catskill visit. “It’s the weekend of the Perseid meteor shower!”

“Perfect!” was my response. “Do you remember lying out on the grass to watch?”

The night sky in the Catskills is so beautiful. No city lights block out the view. The nights are so quiet and so dark, (and sometimes scary), it makes watching the sky and the stars special.

In the Catskills, it is crisp and cool when the sun goes down. We often spent the nights sitting out on the wooden lawn chairs watching the sky, while wrapped in woolen blankets. Sometimes we would put blankets on the ground so we could look straight up at the sky. This gave us a much better view. But the grass was often damp at night, so my Mom had to give the okay to get some blankets wet.

Watching the sky during the second week of August was our favorite time. How many meteors would we see? Who would see the first one? How late would we be allowed to stay up to watch? How many nights would we actually be able to see the meteors? Although August 12 is the most active night for shooting stars, they appear for a few nights before and after.

I also remember my Dad pointing out man-made satellites and telling us how we could tell the difference between them and shooting stars. (Man-made satellites move steadily through the sky, while shooting stars go quickly and then disappear.)

When we had our own children and started taking them to the Catskills, we shared the love of the night sky and taught them to count the shooting stars. We loved passing along this tradition to our children. Sitting out on a wooden chair with a child in your lap is so warm and wonderful.

Occasionally, when we were little in the 1960s and 1970s, we were also able to see the aurora borealis. It did not happen often, but every once in a while, to the north, those greenish yellow lights would shoot up to the sky from behind the trees, or so it seemed.

I still remember the first time I really understood what it was when I saw them. I was about ten years old. And one evening, while looking for shooting stars, I noticed a yellowish glow above the line of trees. I was worried; was it a fire? The adults assured me it was not fire, instead it was the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis lighting the sky. I still remember the sight of the dancing green and yellow lights above the trees. This is the spot where, in the future, we would normally see them. I remember at night always turning to this spot on our property to look for the lights.

Whenever I see the aurora borealis, and I have seen it several times in my adult life, I always think of one of my favorite stories about my sister’s husband. Let me set the stage:

The first point is that my sister’s son was a very fussy baby at times. He did his best sleeping when being driven in a car. My sister and her husband spent many hours driving my nephew’s first six months of life.

The second point is that my sister’s husband had not spent his childhood summers in the Catskills, so had no true experience with the night sky. He was a metropolitan New York, Long Island boy, who had never seen the northern lights.

That is the setting. Now the story:

One night, when their son was being fussy, my sister and her husband took their baby for a drive in the Kauneonga Lake, Bethel, Swan Lake area, part of the time along old 17B. My brother in law kept driving and driving and driving, for quite a long time, along the dark, hilly, curving roads. Finally my sister asked, “Where are you going?”

“I am going to drive to those lights…to that city,” he responded.

My sister knew there was no city there. And those were definitely not the lights of any city.

“You will be driving for a very long time,” she told him. “Those are the Aurora Borealis.”

He had no idea that we could see them in the Catskills. He was mildly incredulous, but he did turn around and head back to my parent’s home.

We had been getting worried. It was the time before cell phones, so all we could do is wait for them to return. My father considered calling the state troopers. But they returned before the call was made.

When they got back, and my sister told us what happened, we loved it! Even better, my nephew continued sleeping.

I still love that story!

My husband did not have that problem. He recognizes the aurora borealis. He studied astrophysics and quantum mechanics at Cal Tech (in Pasadena, California) for two years of undergrad before he changed his major and his college. But his interest in the night sky started when he was very young, when he was growing up in St. Louis.   His Dad told me how he took my husband to classes at the St. Louis McDonnell Planetarium when he was a boy. And my husband told me how his Dad slept through the presentations. But at least his Dad went with him.

My husband’s interest in astronomy made the beautiful night skies an added attraction and enjoyment during his visits to our home in Kauneonga Lake. When he came up, he would set a blanket out on the grass at night and star gaze for hours. When our children were old enough, he would take them outside to watch the sky with him. They would stay out there for hours wrapped in blankets.

My children learned the name of the stars and the constellations at an early age. They also learned at a young age that Dad would wake them up in the middle of the night if there was something interesting going on in the sky. In the Catskills it was easy to see these special sky events, which made them much more fun.

There might more lights on in the Catskills at night now. But it is still dark enough to enjoy the night sky and the meteor showers. I cannot wait to see them this year. I wish everyone happy star gazing!

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